The Mahoning Valley’s tech diaspora discusses growing up, challenges they’ve faced and the region’s future in a post-COVID world.

The Mahoning Valley is at an inflection point in its history.

Once a center of the industrial world, its prominence ebbed as industry waned and the tech sector sprang up around San Francisco and the Bay Area, drawing much of the region’s talent with it. 

Now, COVID-19 is causing many to rethink the need to locate around Silicon Valley, and decades-old assumptions about how tech ought to work, and where, have been called into question. Naturally, the trajectory of the Mahoning Valley, which has tried to pivot to accommodate the tech sector for some time, is called into question as well. 

I met virtually with four individuals who were born and raised in the Mahoning Valley and who’ve since gone on to do interesting things in technology. We got into what they thought about this shift, their perspective on their past work, what’s happening now and where the future is headed. 

The interviewees

  • Michael Capellas, founder of Capellas Partners, former president of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and current chairman of Cisco Systems, is credited with one of the most successful public image turnarounds in American corporate history. He is originally from Warren and attended both Warren City Schools and Kent State University. 
  • Marc Malandro, vice president of Operations for Science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (Priscilla Chan’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy whose mission is to support the science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of this century) attended Youngstown State University for both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biological sciences.
  • Raianna Hnida is a senior application engineer at Aptiv, an autonomous vehicle company that recently announced a deal with Hyandai to develop a fleet of robo-taxis by 2022. She is also a graduate of YSU, receiving her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.
  • Dexter Caffey is the founder and CEO of Smart Eye Technology, a startup that uses biometric scanning technology to keep documents open on screens secure. Caffey, whose company just recently inked deals with both Samsung and Adobe, graduated from YSU with his bachelor’s degree in finance. 

Let’s start off with your background. All of you have gone on to do interesting work in the world of technology. What inspirations or influences from your formative years in Northeast Ohio have positively shaped your later career? 

Michael Capellas: The work ethic of my immigrant father and that of my upbringing in Warren are really one and the same. So many of the families we associated with, and the history of the area, were from people from similar backgrounds. The work ethic of this generation is so well chronicled in pride of one’s contribution — by being the best that they can be, belief in the power of everyone pulling their weight, simple fair play and control of one’s own destiny.  But … what other influences from Northeast Ohio shaped my later years?  Without question, sports, in a team-crazed culture, was a significant influence. I played high school football (the Warren Harding state championship team, and later one year at the college level). There is more to sports than on-the-field performance. I was not particularly gifted, and it was another lesson that commitment and hard work can overcome other shortcomings. 

Raianna Hndia: The Youngstown region has seen our share of tough times, but also our share of good times. We learned how to work hard to create and maintain the good times.  I attribute my work ethic to my roots in the Youngstown region.  

Marc Melandro: I am continually amazed by the work ethic of the people in the region. No one is a stranger to hard work, and there is no sense of entitlement.  I would also add the ability to overcome adversity and continue to press on.  I keep these values close to me, and I would not be doing what I am doing today without really internalizing them.  I am not entitled to anything, but if I work hard, I can have an impact, and I also can work hard to overcome adversity and keep moving forward.

Dexter Caffey: I used to be a busboy at the Squaw Creek Country Club. I actually paid my way through Ursuline working as a busboy. When I was there, I met Dr. (Abe) Malkoff, who became a mentor to me. He would come to me and talk to me about focusing and being successful, and we’d have our little chat about my progress at Ursuline. I told him once that I got a C-minus in a class. He actually grabbed me and threw me against a wall and told me to get my act together. I was a B average student from that point on! 

With your upbringing in the Valley as your backdrop, you’ve all handled unique and interesting challenges in your careers. For instance, Michael, you had to turn around a company, that much like Youngstown, experienced events that totally eroded public trust. And Raianna, you had to manage the challenges of being a woman in a largely male-dominated field. Marc, your lab is home to one of the scientists responsible for discovering the very original SARS virus, and thus your team pivoted quickly to help aid in the development of a COVID vaccine. And Dexter, you had to overcome being a non-technical founder of a high-tech product. Describe what these situations were like and what you did to overcome them.

Michael Capellas: We had an eight-foot sign that hung in my office that said, “Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.” That is, of course, easier said than done because in the real world there are always a complex set of trade-offs. I think part of why we were successful at transforming WorldCom into MCI was the power in the simplicity of our communications:   

1. We set clear, short-term objectives that were achievable.

2. We broke complex, long-term issues into understandable pieces. 

3. Rebuilding trust in a crisis required transparency.  We reported results good or bad against our objectives frequently. 

As a practical example, in my first major address to 66,000 employees, I said that for the first 100 days we were going to focus on delivering against five key customer satisfaction goals. We had so many issues in every corner, but refocusing employees on achieving customer satisfaction helped rally people with a common objective and build trust.

Raianna Hndia: There were some intimidations I had to overcome entering a historically underrepresented field. You hear a lot of horror stories of women being told, “You were hired to meet a quota.”  Hearing these stories can shake your confidence — you fear that it is true. 

My personal experience was a very positive one. On my first day of my internship at Aptiv (then Delphi) the lobby was filled with an equal amount of men and women.  It didn’t take long for me to gain the confidence with the help of many influential female co-workers and supportive male co-workers. My first supervisor encouraged me to challenge myself. She had every confidence in my education and abilities as an engineer.  

It’s common for women to be raised to feel like they need to be nonconfrontational. … This was a challenge for me to overcome — but I was lucky to have a female co-worker who helped me realize that it is OK to challenge decisions, to push for the outcome you want and that it is OK to ask for more. 

Marc Malandro: The CZ Biohub was in a unique position to be able to respond to the immediate challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic given Joe’s experience with SARS-CoV-1 and given the relationship of the Biohub with its partner institutions, UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley and Stanford.  

The Biohub set up a CLIA-certified testing facility to meet the immediate demands for testing in the Bay Area.  They also have been leading the way in the analysis of the genetic material of the virus to understand mutations and how the virus is spreading.  CZI separated its focus areas into immediate and longer-term areas, working for the first six months of the pandemic on projects with a return and data in the six- to 12-month time frame. These include projects focused on repurposing drugs as potential antivirals and on developing actionable testing data.  

We realized that in order to quickly pivot and adapt, we had to do so leveraging areas in which we currently were working and had expertise rather than areas in which we would have to build skill sets that would really not have the immediate impact for which we were looking for.

Dexter Caffey: Another interesting way that Dr. Malkoff, my mentor, influenced me was by ultimately steering me into my current path. He was Jewish, and over the course of spending time with him, I came to really respect and appreciate Jewish culture. It was that respect for the culture that initially prompted me to attend the cybersecurity conference in Israel where I would get the inspiration for Smart Eye. In my interaction with the people there, and after reading some of the book Startup Nation, I noticed a mindset that’s exemplified by a saying I heard there: “If we don’t understand something, we’ll figure it out.”

It’s a mindset that I really respected, and was just a natural part of who I was. When I got back from the conference, I knew I wanted to launch Smart Eye, but I had no idea how. I was in finance, but this idea would stay with me night and day. It was the first thing I would think about when I woke up in the morning. I also knew the mindset I was looking for. The people who I met in Israel had it. So, finally, one day I decided to reach out to some of the folks there and asked if they knew anybody who worked in cybersecurity technology. I found the people with the skill set and the mindset I was looking for, and that’s what led to Smart Eye today.

COVID-19 is contributing to an exodus from Silicon Valley to other burgeoning tech hubs around the country. What do you think of this change? What advice do you have for communities such as the Mahoning Valley who might want to take advantage of this shift?

Michael Capellas: Companies are looking to new talent pools. These pools are best developed by public-private relationships between universities and government entities and local business. There is certainly a role in incubators in fostering these.

Raianna Hndia: A big draw to the Bay Area for these companies was the concentration of technology, which allowed for a lot of networking. COVID-19 has taught us that we can still accomplish these goals without being concentrated in one area. Cost of living can be a huge factor in attracting workers from the Bay Area. The opportunity to own a small piece of the world is a huge driver for the minds flocking from the Silicon Valley.  

In the Youngstown area — one can do just that. They can own a space to create and raise a family with more financial freedom. Real estate is a much more attainable goal in the 330 than it is in Silicon Valley. It would be important for the Valley to adopt a flexible work environment, and build up social neighborhoods to mimic the diversity of the Bay Area. There must be opportunities, a space where individuals can express their ideas safely … and a slice of Briar Hill pizza or some Tressel Tortellini wouldn’t hurt.

Marc Malandro:  I think the pandemic has shown that there is a lot of work that can be done remotely and that progress can still be made without all employees necessarily together. … I will say that the Silicon Valley has an ecosystem that goes beyond any company or set of companies.  I don’t think there is a risk of that ecosystem going away, but it may change and shift.  Companies all around the country will understand that they may be able to use remote work as a recruiting tool for highly qualified people. Maybe the region can position itself as a friendly hub for people working remotely, perhaps by increasing the number of coworking spaces and single-occupancy offices.  Maybe the region can position itself to companies who are not necessarily ready to move a whole operation to the Mahoning Valley as a friendly “hub” or “satellite” location that is a good source of talent from the local universities and a vibrant ecosystem for technology and advanced manufacturing companies.  Perhaps this can then create a virtuous cycle of new companies and new opportunities.

Dexter Caffey:  Atlanta has such a culture around entrepreneurship. It’s very supportive of that environment. That’s why I am set up here. I think Youngstown could do the same. If they want to make entrepreneurship important, they need to make it become a part of everyday topics. They need to let it become in the fabric of colleges, in the fabric of daily life, make it a constant focus of the city all the time and really build up that whole environment of valuing entrepreneurship from every aspect.

Between the Youngstown Business Incubator, the BRITE Energy Lab in Warren and others, there are efforts underway to attract, foster and develop technology businesses in the region. If you could wave a magic wand, what are the steps you take to develop those efforts?

Michael Capellas: For starters, I don’t have a magic wand, and experience has taught me that there usually is not just one answer for complex problems. I will offer a few observations:

  • Passionate leadership matters;
  • Celebrate the art of positive thinking;
  • Have a long-term vision but operationalize short-term, measurable goals;
  • Be relentless in building long-term relationships.

Marc Malandro: I have always been interested in seeing the results of science and technology really helping people. In my current role, I do that in a philanthropic capacity.  However, when I was working in innovation and entrepreneurship at Pitt, starting new companies and working to get new products made from university research are another way to accomplish that goal.  If I were holding a magic wand, I would ensure deep collaboration and sustainable funding of the innovation ecosystem.  The Mahoning Valley region has some great assets, but these assets need to compete with other regions in the U.S. and in the world.  There is no room for competition among stakeholders in this region. There is too much to do and too little funding to accomplish it. All of the links in the chain must work together, from the innovators to the entrepreneurs to regional economic development to investors. In addition, there has to be enough capital to fund and sustain great ideas and companies, as well as the regional infrastructure to support those companies.

Raianna Hndia: The Mahoning Valley has an extremely driven and industrious workforce that sees the value in the Valley and wants the community to succeed. Based on the Valley’s history in the molding and manufacturing industry, it is a natural next step to additive manufacturing. To achieve additive manufacturing goals, we need to pay homage to our industrial background but welcome a new way of thinking. Additive manufacturing requires designers to think differently — as they are no longer facing the same geometrical and timing constraints as traditional tooling and molding.  

Dexter Caffey: I come back (to Youngstown) about once or twice a year, so I’m a little familiar with the steps being taken. I think if entrepreneurship was really high, things would change for the city. I think the city should focus on creating a culture of risk-takers, not only entrepreneurs but also investors. That money may or may not come from the area, but you need to have an ethos of this, a type of environment in order to have investors and entrepreneurs willing to change mindsets. 

MOLDING AND SHAPING

Four individuals. Four dramatically different paths taken in life. And yet, across all four experiences, Youngstown, the work ethic it inspired and the innovative thinking process it imbued helped mold and shape these technology professionals into the success they are today.

For a region that’s been through so much turmoil and on the cusp of greater change, these four individuals offer insights that could guide the area toward a new reality as the whole world navigates new shifts in work and living.

One thing should never change, however, and that’s the Tressel Tortellini. 

Jillian Smith is a freelance writer who started her career in writing as a columnist for YSU’s student newspaper, The Jambar. Though now based in Chicago, Jillian considers Youngstown her spiritual home and travels back for the pizza whenever she can.





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