During seven years of weekly interviews about leadership with more than 300 leaders in Upstate New York, I usually ask about the region’s attributes. I pose questions like: What do you see as Upstate’s strengths? Why have you chosen to live and work here? What would you tell naysayers who don’t see opportunity here and only complain that problems are overwhelming?

As I’ve often done around New Year’s, I compiled excerpts from some of those interviewed during the year. In 2020, the largest number of the 51 leaders I featured came from manufacturing – 10. Educational fields were next with six. Digital startups, food/retail, and non-profits had five each. The rest were scattered among medicine, consulting, entertainment, and a variety of service industries. Some are retired executives; others are young entrepreneurs. Some lead companies with thousands of employees; some lead a handful.

Even in the midst of pandemic and resulting recession, answers this year echoed those of previous years: Central New York is home to hard-working and dedicated people. The quality of life, affordable housing, natural beauty, skilled workforce, cultural amenities, and bountiful higher education make it a great place to live and work. Despite personal grief and economic damage, the pandemic revealed courage, neighborliness, and selfless service.

Even with vaccines arriving, it would be premature to pull on rose-colored glasses. But, as in other years, facing a variety of brutal facts does not require pessimism or despair.

As 2020 passes away, here are excerpts from a few of this year’s interviews. Please think of this column as a New Year’s resolution to be resilient, to cherish CNY, and to build on its attributes.

Aliza Seeber co-founded SparkOrange in 2013. She is managing partner and chief technology officer.

I’m here because I love Syracuse. I love the seasons. I love the community.

For the naysayers? We’ve been on the Inc. 5000 list for two years in a row. We’re growing – we’re booming. There are so many young companies that are doing awesome, innovative things. There’s Terakeet. There’s TCGPlayer. We’re all growing exponentially year over year. Downtown Syracuse is a huge draw. There’s this continuing push to do more innovative things. Unfortunately, with Covid, some of that has stalled. But that’s true everywhere.

We have so many awesome resources with such great universities. Syracuse University is right up the Hill. Cornell is an hour away. OCC is doing remarkable things. As we’ve gotten bigger, we use interns, training people and building them up. We see great potential in Syracuse, and that’s why we’ve chosen to stay here.

So, the naysayers? I don’t see it.

Melanie Littlejohn is a vice president at National Grid. She is known for mentoring up-and-coming leaders.

It is a beautiful place to live. Some of the seasons melt into each other, but I get a chance to experience all four seasons.

I get a chance to live affordably.

I get a chance to experience things that I might not otherwise experience had I not lived in Upstate – the Finger Lakes, the Adirondacks.

I get a chance to understand what farm-to-table is in a real way and enjoy it.

I get a chance to get from one location to the next, typically in 30 minutes or less.

When I think about the doom-and-gloom naysayers, I think, all right, where else could I live where I don’t spend half my life commuting and I can still get to so many interesting places so easily? I get a chance to enjoy the wonders of being in a place where I can imagine and create the future for myself and for my family. There is an opportunity to create and test and figure out how to make things happen. You can make things happen here with a little grit and a lot of motivation. Good things can happen. And you can see the fruits of your labor really prominently. You can have an impact.

Yeah, industries have left, but they’re being replaced by many new industries, by forward-thinking, innovative entrepreneurs. It’s about seeing possibilities.

Beth Race is an I.T. and environmental entrepreneur who founded and owns Eco-Baggeez. She designed and manufactures environmentally sound sandwich bags.

Networking with people who can make a difference for your company is a lot easier here. It’s easy to get involved in organizations that can help other people and thereby expand your network. We have sort of a small town feel to a city that’s pretty progressive and is always reinventing itself to be current.

You have so many business resources, like The Tech Garden, WISE Women’s Business Center, InSourcing, the South Side Innovation Center. Anything that you need to start a business, you can find here – you don’t have to move to another city to do that.

Curt Hartman became CEO of ConMed in 2014. The medical device manufacturer has 3,500 employees deployed on six continents.

I see great people and great work ethic. I learned there is this unbelievable ethnic diversity in Utica and within our manufacturing plant in Utica. At last count, we had 16 different languages represented. And that is because there’s an immigration center that feeds the local population. It’s really fun to be part of that. Because of that, the diversity within the community is absolutely incredible – I’ve never eaten at so many good restaurants as I have in the greater Utica-Clinton area.

They’re smaller communities with a sense of safety, security, and concern for your neighbor. Syracuse is just a 45-minute drive away and has a phenomenal airport. It’s easy to connect, to go somewhere global. If you’re a traveler as part of your role, that extra stop is not career limiting, it’s not business limiting. It’s just something you plan for.

Contrast the time you arrive to the time you’re at the gate in an airport like Syracuse to O’Hare, L.A., Denver, Boston, those big cities. It is a night-and-day difference. I don’t want to spend an hour getting from my parking place to the gate. I want to be efficient. I want to get on the plane and get going. And now that they’ve upgraded the Syracuse airport, it’s even nicer.

You have access to the Adirondacks, the lakes, the hiking. I hear this when we recruit interns. How’d you spend your summer? There’s the work portion, and there’s what you did away from work. More often than not, it’s about exploring the Adirondacks or going to someplace like Saratoga.

There’s just a lot within a close proximity that people can tap into.

Timmy Oh founded manufacturer Vara Safety in 2016 and is CEO and majority owner.

Upstate New York has a thriving ecosystem for young startups and the resources for startups is amazing. Organizations like Upstate Venture Connect, UNY50, and Startup Tech Valley make networking, finding mentors, getting advice, and even receiving funding phenomenal. That has been a major factor in building our company here.

The technology talent pool is impressive in Upstate New York. There are a lot of new graduates from the multitude of colleges in Upstate New York and even from nearby areas like Boston. Those graduates are looking for opportunities in companies that give them a mission and purpose to their work. I came here from Southern California and I do miss the beach and nice weather, but Upstate New York simply has the most advantages for success.

Jennifer Savastino is co-owner and vice president of Gannon Pest Control. She is a co-founder and officer of Syracuse Challenger Baseball, the largest special needs baseball league in the country.

Central New York has a community that stands together. People root for each other here. I do a lot of charity work, and I’m involved in a bunch of different things. There are so many people willing to help, to step up, to stand up for their neighbor.

I visit friends in other areas, and they don’t even know their neighbors. Cities like Charlotte and Austin and places like that, yes, you might have pockets of communities. But here, whether you’re from the North side, the West side, the South side – it doesn’t matter. You’ll see it on social media, someone posts looking for something, and everybody jumps in.

I see it with Challenger Baseball and the amount of people that come to watch our kids play – when we do play. (The season was canceled because of Covid-19.) If you’re ever free on Tuesday or Thursday evening in the summer, there is nothing that’ll make you smile more than coming to watch our kids play baseball. There’s a sense of community here that I don’t think you’re gonna find in a lot of other places. People really support local businesses, local charities, and each other.

Anne Messenger founded Messenger Associates (MAI) in 1997. Now, having closed MAI after nearly 20 years in business, she is active with the Women Presidents’ Organization and is one of the founders of the CNY Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Alliance.

Central New York is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I have been all over the world, and I know what I’m talking about. It’s beautiful – at all times of the year. I grew up in seasonal weather, lived in California a long time, and I think it’s really unnatural to have warmth and roses at Christmas time. (Laughter)

The people are down to earth and great.

I grew up in a small town, and I sometimes think Syracuse is the smallest town in the world. But it’s big enough to be really interesting. All the cultural stuff – there’s always something to do. It’s small enough that if you pay your dues and you step up to the plate enough times, you get things done.

We could do this Lyme Alliance here in a way that we’d never be able to do in Chicago or New York City. If you’ve developed your relationships and your trust foundations with people in Syracuse, you can call up the county executive and say, Ryan, I need your help. Or you can call up the mayor and say Ben, I need your help. You can be on a first-name basis, and they’ll take your calls. You can get things done and make a mark in a way that has not just local significance, but perhaps national significance, which we’re doing with this Lyme Alliance.

Me’Shae Rolling is a serial entrepreneur, who in September was named executive director of the Upstate Minority Economic Alliance.

My husband, James, and I are coming up on 13 years here and I may as well tackle weather first. (Laughter) For me, when it’s sunny and glorious outside, those are my hardest days to work because I feel the tension between being outside and work. So rain and snow are perfect for me because I’ll look out the window and say: This is great, because I will get work done.

That’s one thing, and the second is I love the geographical convenience of Syracuse. You’re able to get all points North, South, East, or West within 15 or 20 minutes – 30 tops. It’s great. When I have several appointments jammed in a day, I realize I wouldn’t be able to be involved in as many things if I were in another city. Geographical convenience also means we’re so close to other major metropolitan cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia. We are an easy train or bus ride or airplane away.

This is a close community. Normally, you’d say six degrees of separation. Here it is less than six degrees. People told me that when I moved here. The longer I stay here, the more I find that to be true. It’s a tight-knit community and people really do believe in supporting the community as a whole.

What would I tell the naysayers? If you don’t see opportunity, hang out with me. I have plenty of events and opportunities. In my world, there’s just never a dull moment.

Andrew Zepp became executive director of the Finger Lakes Land Trust in 2003.

Well, this is my adopted home. While I love visiting the Rockies, and I’ve been all over the world, this is home. I will always want to travel, but this is where I want to be. It’s not the wilderness or the big city. It’s this mix of everything. It’s this wonderful mosaic of the beautiful lakes, prime farmland and agricultural lands, small villages, and these wild areas of rugged gorges, wooded hillsides, and scenic vistas …

In terms of the potential, I think in part it’s the quality of life and how many people seek the quality of life we have here. Where I grew up (Downstate), it’s now so expensive, as most major urban areas are in the United States. When I lived in D.C., real estate was going up probably 10 percent a year.

We’ve got some great downtown areas that have arts and culture. The area has great universities, and easy access to Lake Ontario, the Adirondacks, and the Finger Lakes. It’s about placemaking. It’s about making a special place that also is going to cost a fraction of a big city, and will have the positives of a lifestyle where you do not have to spend two hours of your day getting back and forth to work. Not only do we have this great quality of life, we are proximate to the East Coast.

So I’m bullish on our region and on Syracuse. There are big challenges, but at the same time, if we focus on strengths and focus on not trying to solve everything at once, we can build back, making places where people want to be. I see elements of that happening. Places like the Hotel Syracuse are a fantastic example.

Joe Dickson is a serial entrepreneur who started his first manufacturing company in 1989 at age 35 and now is CEO and co-owner of Ducted Wind Turbines.

It’s been heartening to watch how the entrepreneurial ecosystem has grown. Not only that, but it’s been heartening to see how the area has weathered the storms of losing the manufacturing jobs at GE and General Motors and Carrier. When I was a kid in first grade, GE employed 25,000 people in Syracuse alone.

To see how the area has weathered its storms and grown that entrepreneurial ecosystem has been very heartening.

My wife and I spend a lot of time in the Adirondacks – we’re 46 High Peak hikers. We spend a lot of time on the lakes and hiking in the area. We do like to escape to winters in Florida if we can, but it’s beautiful in Upstate New York and we love it. And now that I’m with Ducted Wind Turbines in Potsdam, we get to spend a lot more time in the Saranac and Lake Placid High Peaks region – one of our favorite places on earth.

Janet Lutz co-founded Calico Gals in 2001 and soon became sole owner. She also founded Row by Row Experience, which grew into Quilters Trek, connecting quilters and quilt shops around the world.

I feel very fortunate to be in Syracuse as an entrepreneur, because of the enormous amount of resources and support that there is for entrepreneurs. We have Syracuse University and different programs. If I wanted to, I could go to classes or events or something for entrepreneurs every week. I know that my colleagues across the country don’t have what I have here.

So we’re very fortunate.

I was able to participate in the Emerging Leaders Program. The SBA office and the WISE Women’s Business Center are amazing. I belong to the WPO (Women’s Presidents Organization). That’s a fabulous group. That’s part of making sure that you have a support team, and I think that we’ve got that all here.

Rachel Rosen is president and CEO of WexEnergy. The company developed WindowSkin, which makes windows energy efficient without impeding view or changing operability.

I grew up in New York City, and I never imagined that I would come to Upstate and not want to leave. I loved growing up in the city, but Upstate is beautiful. Downstate is a great place to visit, and I don’t want to denigrate Downstate. There’s a lot of great things there and I have kids and grandchildren there. I’m there often. But Upstate is beautiful, and it’s beautiful even in the cold gray of winter.

There’s a personality to Upstate New York. People will let you get on the highway. They’ll help you. People are nice to you.

Our manufacturer (Bo-Mer Plastics in Auburn), these people are the salt of the earth. They are just the most decent, honest, hardworking people. It is gratifying to know that you’re creating good manufacturing jobs for really decent people.

The cost of living is not high here. The schools are phenomenal. Outdoors is gorgeous. You can ski, you can skate, you can bike, you can do all the things you like to do outdoors. We love to go to the RPO, the Rochester Philharmonic. I always say we leave late and still get there on time. There’s no traffic. There’s Wegmans. Upstate is a really comfortable place to live. The costs here are low, you don’t have to work all day just to get the utility bill paid.

I don’t remember my father ever coming to a play or a program at school during the day. In New York City, you’d lose a half a day of work. In Rochester, maybe except for the doctors in the hospital and some lawyers that are in court, it’s common for parents to show up at school cause it only takes 20 minutes to get to your kid’s school. The program takes 40 minutes. They go back to work.

I had tenants in an office where I remember walking in one day. It must’ve been four o’clock in the afternoon, and a whole bunch of people are gone. What happened? Oh so and so’s daughter is in a championship soccer game and everybody went to cheer and they’re just going to come back and finish their work an hour late. That would never happen Downstate because it can’t. It doesn’t work that way. So Upstate is just a great place to live.

Dr. Ruth Weinstock is medical director of The Joslin Diabetes Center at SUNY Upstate Medical University. She was the driving force to establish the center in 1995. Since our conversation, she has been elected president of medicine and science for the American Diabetes Association.

I remember when I came here from Columbia University and people were shocked. Why don’t you just stay at Columbia? I had that option. I never regretted it after I got here. It’s a beautiful place to live. It’s one of the nation’s best-held secrets. SUNY Upstate has a wonderful mission, and it gave me the opportunity to grow and to develop a program that I felt passionate about. Which is an opportunity that I don’t know I would have had somewhere else.

Here at the medical center, if you have an idea, a research idea, and you want to collaborate with somebody, it happens. In all these years, in terms of collaboration, no one has ever said no to me. It’s always, Sure we’ll help if we can.

It’s a very collaborative place. Whereas in some places, it’s very competitive within the institution. I’ve always felt that I’ve had wonderful collaborators at SUNY Upstate.

I love Central New York. Its public schools are wonderful. Its cultural events are wonderful. I love going to plays. I lived in Manhattan for 10 years, and I see more plays here, because it’s easier. I’ve had a subscription to Syracuse Stage since I moved here, and I go to Famous Artists. It’s easy. It’s fun. We have a great quality of life. Someone graduates from a school wherever, and Syracuse isn’t the first place on their list to live. I think we need to get the word out better. Once people get here, they’re happy.

I also think of the affordability. You can buy a house here for a fraction of what my friends and colleagues spend to live along the coast and in bigger cities. You couldn’t afford it in some of these other places. Then, add in the parks, recreation, cultural activities, the outdoors. I love all four seasons and you can really enjoy all four seasons here. You’re not spending time in bumper-to-bumper traffic. We don’t have earthquakes, hurricanes like on the coast, and we’re not going to go underwater like Miami.

More end-of-the-year columns like this one: 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. The weekly “Conversation on Leadership” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at StanLinhorst@gmail.com. Last week featured Janet Ready, chief operating officer at St. Joseph’s Health. She admires the selfless courage of health-care workers working through the Covid-19 pandemic.



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