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Seven People to Watch

The seven people gathered here represent nominations from Coastal Connecticut readers as well as our own research. The criteria: Someone who represents the independent and ambitious nature of the shoreline and its environs. These are people to watch right now. More importantly, you will watch them in the future.

Vocalist & Composer,

Maybe American Idol was all wrong. Erin Christine was born for the spotlight. Selected as one of the finalists on the hit show American Idol and currently enjoying a blossoming musical career, Christine has maintained an enduring passion for performance that shows no sign of slowing.

“I grew up in a very musical household,” says Christine. “My parents always surrounded me with music, whether it was on a road trip listening to The Beatles, or taking me to see musicals. They always supported my creativity.”

It was an animated film, however, that sparked Christine’s appreciation for song. “My first memory of falling in love with music was when I was around three years old,” she says. “I remember watching The Little Mermaid and wanting to sing just like Ariel.”

Christine made good on this dream, attending the Berklee College of Music and working hard to prepare herself for the stage. “For eight years I tried every way to make it in the music industry, including countless meetings with different record labels, a single on some of the biggest radio stations, and even studio time with John Legend,” she says.

It was only after this hard work that she found her time to strike. She tried out for American Idol in the summer 2013. “I never imagined being as nervous as I was,” says Christine of her time on the show. “But you are performing in front of amazing judges, and you come to realize that 30 seconds of singing could determine the rest of your life.”

Although Christine did not win the competition, she values her time on the program as well as the motivation it instilled within her. “I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to be on a show that will go down in history. Idol helped me gain a fan base and set a fire that will push me even further to get to where I want to be in my musical career,” remarks Christine. “Now, I want this more than ever, and I will do all that I can to get there.”

The future looks bright for Christine, who is currently in the beginning stages of producing the next Can U Sing competition for Connecticut. “It is a statewide singing competition for all ages,” says Christine. “All the money that is raised through this competition goes to a foundation called the Sunshine Kids, where children with cancer can take special trips all over the country free of charge.”

Eldercare Advocate,

Eldercare is quickly becoming one of the most talked-about fields in medicine, and few people have worked to advance this issue as hard as Bernadette DiGiulian. Through a wealth of past work, as well as her current position =as program director of the Shoreline Eldercare Alliance (SEA), DiGiulian has long been one of the individuals primarily responsible for the advancement of geriatric issues in Connecticut.

“I spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up,” recalls DiGiulian of her youth. “I was taught that I stood on the shoulders of those who came before me.“
After working as a public school teacher, DiGiulian went on to attend the Yale Divinity School. “I became very interested in medical ethics and pastoral counseling, performing many levels of Clinical Pastoral Education in New Haven hospitals and then, when I was at a higher level, focusing on geriatrics at Masonic Healthcare,” remarks DiGiulian.

DiGiulian went on to become the director of Resident Services at the Evergreen Woods Center before beginning her own well-received practice as a geriatric care manager. It was, however, a fateful conversation that would alter the course of her life forever.

“About six years ago, my colleague and I got together and wondered why so many people did not prepare for aging. It seemed that it always took a crisis for people to address the needs they had been having for quite some time,” says DiGiulian. “So, we thought we’d like to get others who were in senior care to join us and try to start
a group whose mission was education and preparation.“

The SEA was born, providing advocacy and support for aged members of the local community. “One thing that makes us unique is that we attract all types of people across the shoreline,” notes DiGiulian. “We get many people who never came to an educational event about aging and who are totally unfamiliar with the issues or services they can receive.“

Along with her work at the SEA, DiGiulian is a member of several other organizations related to eldercare and lectures on geriatric issues as an associate fellow at Saybrook College, Yale University.

“In my own small way I hope to encourage respect and acceptance of seniors and to help younger people know all the good they have done and continue to do,” says DiGiulian. “The wisdom of the elderly should be appreciated and used.”

Old Lyme

Jim Goldberg’s story starts with his father. His father was a “big time” food company executive. It was at a hamburger stand in Colchester that the junior Goldberg asked his father what he thought about starting a business that would be locally and socially conscious. “You’re either for profit or not for profit,” the elder Goldberg said.

Jim Goldberg has gone a long way toward proving his father wrong. With that comment, the rebel executive in him was born. And with it the business model for Deep River Snacks. Based in Old Lyme, Deep River Snacks is one of the fastest-growing companies in Connecticut with revenues north of $12 million for 2013. Its business model of generating profits and revenue for relevant charities has become part of the positive approach Goldberg takes to business, which stresses health over wealth and altruism over greed.

“It’s a very simple concept,” he says. “What if you had two snacks in front of you, both for roughly the same price, but one of them has healthy ingredients? We want to be the company that has the healthy ingredients. It’s not just corporate spinning. It’s not just greenwashing. I’m connected to these causes and this company.”

Goldberg is more than “all that and a bag of chips.” In fact, although Deep River sells $12 million worth of healthy snack foods across many different brands, he wants the company to be known by its tag line: “We give a chip.” His first employee had a close friend who died of breast cancer. Deep River is one of the largest donors to the Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation. His middle son was diagnosed with a life-threatening liver ailment called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare liver and bile duct disease. Deep River connected charity and publicity for the PSC Partners Foundation and the Chris Klug Foundation. Chris is the only person to ever medal in the Olympics after an organ transplant. Other partners: The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Autism Speaks, and Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America.

“Do I think this can be a $1 billion company? Yes I do,” he says. “My goal is to make it a $100 million company four years from now. And in the process we can make the world a better place. If we all tighten our belts, we can make profits and help people who need it. You know, it’s pretty messed up out there in the real world.”

Opera Diva,

One of the state’s most celebrated performers, Patricia Schuman is bringing her operatic talents to a whole new generation of music buffs. After years singing in many of the world’s premier opera houses, Schuman is planning a fleet of local performances that promise to be both wholly intimate and utterly inspiring.

Before lighting up the stage at the Metropolitan Opera, Schuman was just a California girl with an appreciation for song. While studying at UC Santa Cruz, Schuman’s voice teacher brought the young performer to an audition at the San Francisco Opera, where “much to everybody’s amazement they offered me a full-time position as a mezzo-soprano,” recalls Schuman.

So began a breakneck career in opera that would bring her to some of the most notable stages in the world, including La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival, and The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

Due to the demands of raising children and her love of smaller venues, in recent years Schuman has remained closer to her home in Essex, Connecticut. “Sometimes in a big opera house the subtleties are lost on the audience,” says Schuman. “Local performances always help me reconnect with the people that I live with as well as my friends and family.”

Local venues also allow Schuman to perform with her equally talented husband, David Pittsinger, whom she will sing alongside at the upcoming Music & More series in Chester, Connecticut. “We met singing in an opera and after all these years we know each other and our working styles very well,” says Schuman.

Along with upcoming performances at the Hartford Symphony and with the Con Brio Choral Society, Schuman will also be appearing at The Glimmerglass Festival this summer where she will sing in Tobias Picker’s adaptation of An American Tragedy.

Going forward, Schuman hopes to spend more time educating young people on the joys of performance. “When I started living here, I did some musicals through our local church, and I really loved working with children,” Schuman notes. “There is something so wonderful about giving people their first exposure to the stage.”

Above all, Schuman values art for its ability to touch people. “I think that all arts are the language of the soul,” remarks Schuman. “When we hear a beautiful piece of poetry or see a great painting, it connects us to our dreams, and that is so important to enrich us and to make our lives worth living.”

SECT Appeal,

Few phrases carry more weight than “job creation.” At the national level it defines tax debates. On cable news it divides saints and sinners. For Coastal Connecticut, job creation is becoming synonymous with funding new companies that can leverage a great place to live with opportunity and earning power. At the head of this effort is Southeastern Connecticut (SECT) Tech and its director, Julie Olson.

“I don’t like to see people leave this area because there are no jobs for them,” she says. “I don’t like to see companies tearing down buildings. We have a young, experienced workforce, and this is a great place to live.”

Stonington resident Olson and SECT Tech have been charged by the state and funded by several private sources with keeping and creating jobs in the eastern shoreline region. According to state employment numbers, the Norwich-New London area has been one of the hardest hit regions in the nation in terms of jobs recovery since 2009.
Olson is a former Pfizer exec. She was the founding CEO of Mersana Therapeutics, a cancer therapeutics company based in Cambridge, MA. Under her leadership, Mersana advanced two compounds into Phase 1 studies in cancer patients. While at Mersana, she raised $39M in private equity and licensed an anti-angiogenic compound to Teva Pharmaceuticals for up to $334M in the fourth largest, single-compound preclinical deal of that decade. Prior to Mersana, Olson had an 18-year career at Pfizer. She held positions in research, including leadership of the high throughput screening and chemistry group that supported lead discovery for a broad range of therapeutic areas. She has a Ph.D. in parasitology from the Rockefeller University and a B.S. in biology from MIT.

One of the prized projects Olson and her team have nurtured is Niantic’s Nature’s Fingerprint. It employs what scientists call Molecular Isotope Technologies. For civilians, suffice to say that the company analyzes impurities in currently prescribed medications, specifically painkillers. Take the impurities out and you have more profitable drugs and less risks to patients.

Olson wants to see between 20 and 50 such companies dotting the 95 corridor by the time she’s done at SECT Tech. Not that the New London area will be the new Route 128.

“There are a lot of possibilities over the next two years,” she says. “But we will maintain the quality of life on the shoreline. I see a series of boutiques rather than a mall.”

Poet & Publisher,

There’s a novelist out of Portland, Oregon, named Lidia Yuknavitch who has coined a phrase for the new wave of writers that transcends the flat emotions and
experience of traditional publishing. The phrase works well for another Coastal-based American writer. The phrase: “Words carry worlds.” Those words capture the work of Stonington writer Leslie Browning with the sureness of tides. As one of her most popular poems says: “The doldrums of this gray village / Can weigh or soothe.”

Browning is the founder and driving force behind Homebound Publications, a poetry and “contemplative literature” house. Her words carry the world of the Connecticut shoreline with all the brine and sea color the area conjures. And her business belies the independence and grit of the New England spirit.

An accomplished and award-winning poet before her current venture, Browning started Homebound partially as an answer to the industry editors who overthought and misinterpreted her work.

“I think books were always going to be the center of my life,” she says. “Yes, Homebound Publications was first founded out of a desire to have more creative control over my own work, but then it evolved into wanting to have a voice in independent publishing and to make a home for those authors who have the talent and the message but might have limited marketability and therefore would be neglected by mainstream publishers. I always say that we at Homebound Publications are working to ensure that the mainstream isn’t the only stream.”

Her latest collection is called Vagabonds and Sundries. It is the latest in her own career that includes several poetry volumes, a spiritual travelogue, and a novel based on journeys to mystical locations. The Homebound catalog is completely unpredictable by topic, but carries the thread of spiritual adventurism and the inner life. Example: A recent title, To Live in Paradise, is set amid the magic and struggles of Africa. It is the memoir of a young American woman who finds herself swept up in an intriguing new life in Zimbabwe, just as this paradise country takes a critical turn in its history.

It’s far from Coastal Connecticut, but close to home for Browning. She has ambitious plans for Homebound.

I see us having a storefront within four years, hopefully in either Mystic or Stonington. I want us to have a store so that we have a way to better integrate ourselves into the community (and Connecticut) and have a bigger voice in the arts community—a place where we can sell our titles, hold events and workshops,” she says. “Also, I see us moving away from fiction and more into nonfiction, poetry, and travel writing. I also hope to build up a strong presence in our home region of Connecticut and New England, which has such a prestigious literary history. I think we are already well on our way to achieving that presence.”

Over the past three years, Homebound has published some of the most popular Connecticut authors, such as Eric D. Lehman, Amy Nawrocki, David K. Leff, and coming in 2015 it will publish WTNH Anchor and Network Connecticut Editor Ann Nyberg’s debut work, which she is writing with Garrison Leykam.

Ecology Advocate,

With a passion stretching back to her earliest days, Suellen Kozey McCuin has always been an advocate for nature. As executive director of the Connecticut Council on Soil and Water Conservation, McCuin is making a larger impact than ever before, working to protect the state’s unique ecological treasures for generations to come.

“Nature was always around,” says McCuin of her childhood spent horseback riding in the area. “My appreciation for the environment was really born from my love of animals.”

After interning at the Connecticut State Capitol, McCuin began work at an independent private contract lobbying firm. Here, she would discover her life’s mission.
“We had a myriad of clients, but the ones I always loved the most were the little guys who didn’t have the biggest budgets,” says McCuin. “That is how I fell into the whole grassroots movement around protecting the Old Saybrook Preserve.”

Inspired to make a change, McCuin began taking master’s classes on environmental science at UConn, left her job at the lobbying firm, and became a legislative associate with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “I felt lucky to be one of the voices for the forest,” she says.

Just as McCuin began leading workshops about land use on behalf of the conference, the Old Saybrook Preserve was slated for development. “That is when my husband and I were asked by a friend if we would be interested in joining the board of the Old Saybrook Land Trust,” recalls McCuin.

After cofounding the Trust, McCuin attained the position of executive director at an unaffiliated organization, the Connecticut Council on Soil and Water Conservation. “It is essentially a conservation partnership,” says McCuin, “to leverage dollars to work on land use projects that protect the state’s water quality and quantity.”
Having achieved so much, McCuin maintains an optimistic outlook. “I think we are in a really exciting time when people are beginning to realize that they can make a huge difference when they get involved,” she notes.

Above all, McCuin feels that ecological issues will only gain in popularity. “It is just amazing what happens when we take the time to see what is in our own backyard,” says McCuin. “We all have such an important role, and I think little by little people are beginning to feel that they have made a difference.”

Image Credits: Photograph y Susie Cushner

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