Class acts: Under 30 and overachieving
by Scott Kearnan
| August 22, 2011
Photo: MICHAEL DISKIN
If Boston were a college, it'd be a cliquey scene. Some industry types get a little too comfortable feeling like the big men and women on campus. But every so often, we see a roster of fresh faces emerge ready to rule the school. We've gathered some grade-A hot shots that represent the best of Boston's under-30 set. They've already proven themselves in their fields, from partying to politics - and these superlative locals are only getting started. Read up. There's no test, but you still need to know these names.
Photo: MICHAEL DISKIN
Megan Johnson, 26
"Inside Track" writer at the Boston Herald
We love good gossip (when it's not about us). And since joining the "Inside Track" last July, Johnson has carved out a niche as a one-girl grapevine: she covers local color, stalks celebs in town, and interviews everyone from Steven Tyler to Bill Cosby. She has a degree in English literature from Simmons College, though her Herald blog, "The Assistant," delivers dry humor and dashes of pop culture ('90s references and viral-video posts abound) for a generation of gawkers raised more on Perez Hilton and Michael K than Woodward and Bernstein.
What kind of student were you? I was "Class Clown" in my high school yearbook! I'm goofy and sarcastic, but when it comes to my goals and ambition, I'm serious as hell. Academics are a lifelong passion. But in high school and college, I partied - a lot. I had a wolf pack of girlfriends in college.
Have any advice for "freshman" writers? I always tell [young writers], if they can possibly do anything else professionally, they should do that instead. Don't get me wrong: I never say to stop writing. I say write forever. [But professionally,] you're not going to make any money or have some glamorous office. There was no set path for what I wanted to accomplish. I realized if I was ever going to be happy professionally, I would have to forge my own path.
What's a juicy secret about you? I've been through the wringer and back again. There were times I was pretty sure I was going to end up living in my parents' basement, next to the washer/dryer, with a cat licking my half-dead body.
What's the best "life lesson" you've received? I've had multiple bosses who got kicks by treating me like crap. . . . I think I'm driven to succeed because there have been people along the way who tried to make sure I felt like a complete failure.
Has spreading gossip ever landed you in drama? I once worked at a shoe boutique, and was busted for talking crap about the then-manager. Shortly after, I got a great job editing textbooks - [but] when they called for a background check, that manager destroyed me. I probably could have sued her for slander. Later she opened her own store, which quickly failed. That was better revenge than any lawsuit could have been.
Matthew Barros, 27
Photo: MICHAEL DISKIN
Most Likely To Succeed
Chef de cuisine at Market
In an industry in which talents slave over hot stoves for years before hitting the big time, Barros has jumped to the head of a new class of chefs. He graduated from New York's Culinary Institute of America (CIA), earned early chops in Miami, and spent four years at Boston's Myers + Chang. Then this summer, Barros was plucked like a coveted draft pick by the team behind internationally renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The intense interview process included a trip to NYC to prepare plates for the master himself - using a box of surprise ingredients. Barros passed the test, and now he's commanding one of the city's most high-profile kitchens at a prodigiously young age.
Is Jean-Georges someone you consider a mentor? I actually had a couple of Jean-Georges's cookbooks when I was growing up. It's pretty remarkable to think that I was already trying to replicate some of his recipes!
What ingredients were in your mystery box? And how did you deal with a "pop quiz" in front of the man himself? I remember there was avocado, button mushrooms, veal, artichoke. . . . I really just kept my head down and told myself, "Remember why you're here. You don't want to push your boundaries; keep it simple and quality." Sometimes the more you over-think things, the more you let things slip through the cracks.
What was the most important thing you learned at the CIA? It's the real world where you get most of your information. I learned a lot of the culinary building blocks, but the biggest thing for me was getting out there and networking: meeting friends and developing relationships with colleagues from all over. If I went to school in, say, Providence, I wouldn't have had the chance to branch out.
What kind of student were you? I was voted "Best All-Around" in high school. I'm an easygoing person: when stuff hits the fan and everyone is going crazy, I'm cool and collected. That's important at work. If I'm running around like a chicken with its head cut off, everyone else is going to be doing the same thing.
Have any advice for "freshman" chefs? Be a sponge. Learn as much as you can from everyone, whether it's the chef, the general manager, the dish washer, or the busboy.
Photo: MICHAEL DISKIN
Jenny Johnson, 29
TV producer and personality
She's not even 30, but Johnson, executive producer and on-air personality for TV Diner, is definitely well-seasoned. (Pun intended.) It's hard to remember a time when she wasn't beaming that megawatt smile into local living rooms and serving as Boston's go-to host for glam fundraisers. But we've also watched her career grow, as she now not only produces breezy entertainment pieces, but interviews major movers and shakers: this summer she celebrated her first anniversary as the inaugural Boston host of "Comcast Newsmakers," a recurring news segment that has her chatting up politicians and philanthropists. Whether she's commanding cameras or emceeing events, Johnson combines the cheerleader-y charm of a social butterfly with one of the most intense work ethics in the biz. Oh, and she makes eyeglasses look glam. Why couldn't we pull that off in school?
What were you like in high school? I moved to Marblehead for high school. It felt like everyone there knew each other since birth. For the first month or two, I spent lunch in the bathroom, avoiding the awkwardness of making new friends! But eventually I found my way into some wonderful lasting friendships.
How are you always so damn perky? I'm usually happy and smiling because I feel lucky to be part of Boston's community. But I'm no Stepford personality. Sometimes you'll catch me running around like a chicken with its head cut off! Work can be stressful, but I've learned a lot from Billy [Costa, TV Diner host]. At 29, I find it hard to keep up! He has unwavering energy that's contagious.
What was your most important college course? It was a pretty philosophical class called "Friendship," about trusting your instincts and believing in yourself regardless of past failures and roadblocks. I don't think you can teach some communication skills. As a communications major, I learned a lot about rhetoric, propaganda, and persuasion - but not how to speak or command a room. But from this class, I learned to be kind to myself.
What have you learned from "Newsmakers"? I was anxious about starting interviews that are more politics- and business-oriented. But it gave me strength and confidence that I don't have to be pigeonholed into a certain genre. It also opened my eyes to a different world, which makes me happy to come back to the food world. So many issues are difficult and divisive - it can be nice to return somewhere lifestyle-oriented.
Any advice for "freshmen" in your field? Buy comfortable shoes. You'll always be running.
Photo: MICHAEL DISKIN
Chris Mason, 29
Activist and filmmaker
Every school had rabble-rousing rebels with a cause - pamphlet-passing environmentalists fighting science-lab dissections, for instance. But Chris Mason is in another league. He's a leader in "Stonewall 2.0," a term for the new generation of gay-rights activists, and he co-founded Join the Impact Massachusetts, a social-media-savvy group that organized one of the largest LGBT-related protests in New England history: it gathered more than 4,000 people on City Hall Plaza to oppose California's Proposition 8. This fall, he'll release a film, The Driving Equality Project, about his ambitious road trip documenting discrimination from coast to coast. The Tufts sociology student and former State House staffer has dabbled in student government, but has no plans to seek office: he prefers towing the picket line to playing politics.
When did your activist streak start? I started a campaign to oust military recruiters from my high school because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I was the first and only gay person to be out at my school of 500. I got pushed around and called names in the hallway, but felt my job was to introduce students and faculty to the idea of an openly gay student.
Tell us about Driving Equality. It combines my love of road trips and activism. I traveled for 107 days and 22,000 miles through the lower 48 states to show how different the LGBT experience is from place to place. I bought a big, white, windowless cargo van. Me and the cameraman would sleep in back. Altogether, I spoke to over 100 people.
Do any stories stand out? I remember one kid in Idaho: when he came out, his family put him through "conversion therapy." They'd show him pictures of men and give electric shocks through his fingertips. Finally he got out of there, met other gay people, and realized he wasn't alone.
Have any advice for "freshman" activists? To remember there's no one set of beliefs in an activism community. Some people are more radical, some more conservative. It's not always easy to work together. Stick to your guns, have an open mind, and share ideas.
Why not run for office? I can say what I want and not have to worry! Working in the State House, I wasn't able to do certain things. There's something nice about being able to speak your mind and stand up and call things out. I like this side of politics.
Photo: MICHAEL DISKIN
Stephanie Kaplan, Annie Wang, and Windsor Hanger, all 22
Most School Spirit
Founders of Her Campus
They met as Harvard undergrads, running the school's lifestyle and fashion magazine. After turning the print mag into an online publication, they were struck with an idea: to found their own girl-centric website for college coeds. (Why couldn't the web-heads at our school be this pretty?) Since launching two years ago, Hercampus.com has expanded to include individualized content for more than 175 schools (they aim to reach 250 this semester) by employing a cyber-sorority of 2,000-plus unpaid correspondents. Hanger, Kaplan, and Wang, on the other hand, are supporting themselves full-time and recently hired their first two paid employees. We talked to Kaplan about their impressive enthusiasm and entrepreneurship.
Why is Her Campus online-only? Everyone is struggling to figure out how to transition media online and still have it be profitable. We took that on as part of our mission: to provide a model for a profitable online magazine. There are ways: you can update it more frequently; you can target content to readers in different areas; you can be much more flexible, unlike print, which has to be planned far in advance and physically distributed. And college students change mailing addresses all the time. This felt like the most effective way to target them.
Do you face unique obstacles as such young entrepreneurs? Everyone is facing the question, "How can we innovate?" People are looking to the younger generation in media. We're looking to be taken seriously, and when you're a 22-year-old girl negotiating a contract or agreement with someone twice your age, there's certainly some ageism. But where we don't have experience, we're learning as we go. It's trial by fire.
What schools show the most spirit, as determined by hits? Boston College has always been huge for us! Also, UT Austin, Emory, and the University of Central Florida are some of the most popular.
What's the best "life lesson" you've learned so far? Don't get excited until the contract is signed!
Photo: MICHAEL DISKIN
Ryan Kelly, 25
Biggest Party Animal
Owner of Five Star Boston
Getting paid to party? Sounds easy, but nightlife kingpins aren't crowned every day. The same names have dominated the scene for years, but Kelly is a fresh face who seems likely to have staying power. He's been in the biz his whole adult life: he started bartending at 18, became VIP host at Centerfolds at 21, and soon founded his own concierge business, Five Star Boston, to get high rollers hooked up. In the last six months, he's expanded to crafting new club nights, like Posh Thursdays at Down Ultra Lounge. With a background in booze, babes, and big spenders, he has us pledging allegiance to the frat house of our fantasies.
How'd your Centerfolds gig inspire you to create Five Star? It basically entailed socializing with big business guys, introducing them to ladies and schmoozing. Eventually they threw me upstairs to work the Champagne room. I was making $800 to $1,000 a night in tips when business partners would come in and drop $50 or $60 grand. I had no idea people were willing to spend that much in Boston, strictly on entertainment.
When you founded Five Star, did anyone teach you the nightlife ropes? [Promoter] Mike Winter has been so supportive. He's been in the scene for years, understands that people who were coming out then are now 30-plus with families, and sees us hitting the younger crowd. Starting out, a lot of stuff was new to us: knowing the common percentage to ask of a club owner, etcetera. He guided us through some blueprints.
How wild do your parties get? Last week we had to replace a VIP booth. Our client was 29, worth millions, and with 20 cronies. By 11:30, Champagne is being sprayed all over the place, and two kids have their shirts off. But his tab was $4,300! So we'll take $500 in damage.
Are your staff animals outside the clubs? We're always up to something. We all went skydiving last year, and we do Vegas once a year together. You'll often see the whole team at the gym together, or making group dinner at one of the guys' houses.
What kind of student were you? The superlative I got in high school was "Class Clown." I've always been the one talking, cracking jokes, and loosening up the atmosphere.