100 People to Meet in 2022: Innovators
Representing industries ranging from retail and fitness to tech and biosciences, these creative, visionary trendsetters and entrepreneurs keep the Old Dominion new and relevant.
Program element monitor, U.S. Air Force
Lisa Alcindor starts rapping in the middle of the Pentagon’s courtyard: “Prepped my plane, call it Rocket Ship. I’m outer space, ain’t no stoppin’ it. Three-two-one with the blastoff!” A trained helicopter pilot, Alcindor works as a contractor in the planning, programming and budgeting department for the secretary of defense during the day, but she’s set her sights beyond the limits of the sky. An aspiring astronaut, Alcindor hopes to orbit Earth through the nonprofit Space for Humanity program, joining only a few Black women who have gone to space. Alcindor, who has also worked for NASA, considers herself a disrupter, and she’s sharing her journey on her Instagram account, @LisaTheLandstronaut, where she asks, “What do astronauts look like?”
CEO and co-founder, Senseware
Serene Almomen thrives on challenge. A decal on the wall of her Centreville office states her company’s principles: “Find a way, get it done, and do it right.” She leads Senseware, a tech company specializing in wireless sensor systems for commercial real estate properties, collecting data on air quality, temperature, energy and water consumption and more. She launched Senseware in 2014 with her husband after the two met at a research conference in Portugal. Health care was initially Senseware’s target industry but Almomen pivoted to the more profitable real estate market. In 2019, Forbes featured Senseware as one of 50 woman-led startups that are crushing technology. “For me, that’s where I thrive,” says Almomen, who in her free time has been perfecting her pie-baking skills. “When I have a problem, I come in and find a way to solve it.”
Executive director, OpenSeas Technology Innovation Hub at Old Dominion University
Jerry Cronin has never lived more than a mile from deep water. After growing up in Long Island and attending the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, he spent time on the West Coast, then came to Virginia. He’s done consulting, started an environmental engineering company, worked for Fortune 150 companies, and most recently landed at ODU’s OpenSeas Technology Innovation Hub. “If I look at my career, it’s been having to learn a new subject matter or new nuance or new field on a pretty regular basis,” he says. The tech hub seeks solutions for the maritime and coastal arenas, focusing on commercializing and operationalizing innovation versus research.
Managing partner, VetEvolve
Before 2014, dog owner Paul Habenicht had only ever visited a veterinary clinic as a pet parent. That changed when he and two business partners launched VetEvolve, a Richmond company that manages veterinary practices. It was a new realm for Habenicht, a former college lacrosse player and Marine, seeking life after active duty. He found similarities between the military and veterinary business, such as the tenets of teamwork and service. “A lot of our people are pleasers,” Habenicht says. “It’s hard to put boundaries around that. We are constantly trying to help with that and manage the fatigue and burnout.”
After all, service is ingrained in Habenicht, who, aside from raising two adopted children, serves as a mentor at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School in Richmond.
Owner and founder, Hanger Law, Talent Termite, Okie Doughkie Donuts
Hunter Hanger probably comes up with five to 10 new business ideas each week. The serial entrepreneur and Regent University School of Law grad spent about a decade practicing real estate law before hiring someone else to run his firm so he could focus on entrepreneurial ventures ranging from a termite control company to a doughnut shop to an event venue. “My real passion … is just to take people who are young and trying to figure things out vocationally, and they want to be entrepreneurs and take away the risk factor for them,” says Hanger, who also started VB Fellows, a Christian nonprofit to encourage young men starting careers in Virginia Beach to stay local. What’s next for Hanger? Slowing down, he says, laughing.
Owner, Ashley Horner Fitness, American Brew, American Screen Printing
Ashley Horner hasn’t met a challenge that she’s afraid to tackle. After the coffee shop in her Virginia Beach neighborhood closed, the entrepreneur opened the kind of shop she wanted to spend time in. She didn’t know anything about running a restaurant before opening American Brew, a coffee and whiskey shop in Virginia Beach, but charged ahead. When she needed a screen printer, she started her own company, American Screen Printing, instead of outsourcing the work. She did the same with her clothing line, Valkyrie. A fitness model and Instagram influencer, she has developed 20 training programs for the military, SWAT teams and others. Her outlook is, “How hard can it be?” and she learns as she goes. A quality she admires in business is the ability to hustle.
CEO, Driven Inc.
Ozzy Jimenez was an ambitious entrepreneur even before he joined Driven Inc. as its chief operations officer 16 years ago. Prior to Driven, Jimenez launched and ran a custom homebuilding business. Driven, a Northern Virginia hybrid software and data management consulting company, offered him “an opportunity to get in on the ground of a budding industry that has turned out to be a big industry and continues to grow,” he says. This year, Jimenez was named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the mid-Atlantic region. He’s most proud of Driven’s team, along with the company’s ability to evolve. “I have always been a team-builder,” says Jimenez, who also serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit Lee Mount Vernon Sports Club.
CEO, Pure Shenandoah
Tanner Johnson was working at an auto dealership in Harrisonburg when the hemp cultivation and CBD manufacturing company founded in 2018 by some of his younger brothers started to take off. Johnson, who majored in intelligence analysis with a minor in economics at James Madison University, brought his business experience to Pure Shenandoah at the urging of his entrepreneur mother, who founded the University Outpost Bookstore at JMU. Pure Shenadoah takes a holistic approach to hemp, aiming to use the whole plant for its health and wellness qualities, as well as for fiber. The company also is positioning itself as Virginia lawmakers pursue avenues for legalizing commercial marijuana sales. “We’re learning as it goes,” Johnson says, “and we’re giving it our best shot, that’s for sure.”
Chief strategy officer, The Martin Agency
Elizabeth Paul describes herself as a nonlinear conversationalist. A chat with Paul, chief strategy officer for Richmond ad agency The Martin Agency, is likely to touch on everything from pop culture and politics to art and TikTok. Last year, Paul was a finalist for ChamberRVA’s young innovator award for young professionals for helping lead Martin’s clients (which include UPS, Old Navy and Geico) to successfully transform their brands during the pandemic. Ad agency work has suited her well from her career’s start. “I loved that you’re getting to solve a lot of different kinds of problems in a day,” she says. Paul and her family also are highly involved in building community in their Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond.
Executive director, RISE
What do aerospace engineering and coastal resilience have in common? More than one would think, says Paul Robinson, who has worked in both fields and values cross-disciplinary approaches to problems. In 2017, Robinson started RISE, which aims to grow coastal resilience-related businesses. “This is a major issue for the whole country, if not the world, so we have the opportunity here to really make a difference, which is very exciting,” he says. In 2022, RISE will run its first Rural Coastal Community Resilience Challenge to deal with climate threats to rural communities. Originally from Scotland, Robinson came to the area in 1990 to work for NASA as an aerospace engineer. He’s also the founder and CEO of AeroTech Research, which specializes in weather hazard detection for aircraft.
Founder and CEO, Kerecis
Fertram Sigurjonsson, CEO of biotech company Kerecis, was one of Ernst & Young’s 2021 Entrepreneur of the Year Mid-Atlantic award winners. But while he was in high school and college, he worked in the fishing industry in his native Iceland. Years later, he had the epiphany that human skin has similarities to fish skin. He began researching and Kerecis was born. The company takes fishing industry waste, washes it and produces it at medical grade quality for skin grafts that encourage damaged tissue to produce cells, healing itself and converting the fish skin to living tissue that never needs to be removed. In 2022, Kerecis will shift to becoming a multiproduct regenerative and cellular therapy company.
Director, Virginia Unmanned Systems Center
A licensed drone pilot who oversees the unmanned systems program at the Center for Innovative Technology, Tracy Tynan spends her time spreading the word about the emerging technology, connecting academia, government, industry and the public. That means demonstrating how the tech can be used to perform “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs safer and more efficiently, like using a drone to read water meter signals. “You could fly a drone over a building, and, with a thermal sensor, it’ll see all the heat loss coming out of the roof of the building,” she says. Once a nationally ranked diver at the University of Virginia, Tynan previously worked for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and the Greater Richmond Partnership.
Founder and CEO, Grow
A proud resident of Norfolk’s Ghent neighborhood, Drew Ungvarsky is proof that a marketing agency can thrive outside of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Last year, Ad Age named Grow its small agency of the year for the Southeast region, citing the “digital experiences” it crafted for clients including Adidas, Google, Spotify and Lululemon. Ungvarsky grew up in Virginia Beach and attended Old Dominion University, aiming to become a video game designer but ultimately gravitating to web design. This year, he launched Assembly, a downtown Norfolk office building with nine tenants, including Grow. With multiyear leases and custom-designed spaces, Assembly is meant to be a creative ecosystem. “I’m looking forward to the continued growth of Grow and realizing this vision for a center,” he says.
Talent acquisition specialist, Dominion Energy Inc.
A 2019 Virginia Commonwealth University graduate, Aaron Varella stays connected to his “Z-lennial” generation through Instagram and LinkedIn. Born in Goa, India, Varella spent most of his youth in upstate New York and Virginia Beach. In his work for Dominion, one of Virginia’s largest employers, Varella focuses on new ways to attract college students and new graduates to work for the Fortune 500 utility. In 2020, he started an Instagram account known as “Cove of Advice” — a play on COVID — offering advice, interviews and other content for recent college grads. The effort made him a finalist for ChamberRVA’s 2020 Innovator Award. Varella says he’s interested in remaining in marketing or human resources, as well as pursuing an MBA.