20 in Their Twenties

Some heard the song of the siren and came running

Others have heard it, and are getting ready to respond. Opportunities are calling, and young Kansas City business owners, executives and personalities are answering that call with entrepreneurial authority and God-given talent. Looking for the next generation of go-getters in this area? Here are a score of them for your consideration.


He’s still closer to 20 than to 30, but Riddhiman Das has packed a career’s worth of achievements into his interests in computer programming. Since coming to America from his native India in 2008, he’s been honored as a Champion of Change by the White House, hailed as one of America’s top 50 computer-science students, won the Microsoft Golden Ticket award for excellence in computer science, and filed for two patents. Even before earning his degree from UMKC, he had established rock-star credentials and started three tech companies. Das grew one of them—Galleon Labs—enough to become acquired in less than two years, and he’s stayed on as chief data officer for DataSENSE. On his resume, you’ll find 17 computer languages spoken, along with proficiency in dozens of database formats, platforms, Web frameworks and other tech tools. He scored a two-fer with Silicon Prairie’s 2014 awards when he was named Technologist of the Year, and another company he’s a developer for, EyeVerify, was named Start-up of the Year. The entrepreneurial hits don’t stop there:  In April, he co-founded Laplacian, which helps startups validate their business idea quickly and cheaply. “A proud moment,” Das says of his achievements to date, “was hiring four of my fellow  graduates and one of my favorite professors from college.”


Growing up in a family business taught Katherine Meiners four things about success: 1. Receptiveness to change opens the door to opportunities. 2. The customer is always right—always. 3. Emphasize your strengths and understand your weaknesses. 4. Successful leaders focus on the positive and listen to others. “These principles define my vision of entrepreneurship and the path I’m on today,” says the 28-year-old director of marketing for Tria Health, an offshoot from a Kansas City area entrepreneurial success story, MedTrak Services. “I’m fortunate that my position at Tria Health allows me to practice those beliefs every day.” Tria Health combats two major healthcare issues: increasingly high costs and the frequency of medication-related health problems, and “as the fourth person hired at Tria Health,” Meiners says, “I’ve had the unique opportunity to play an integral role in the growth of our company.”


For Michael Weber, entrepreneurship is not a self-centered act. Its true meaning, says the 28-year-old, is “the creation of new opportunity for yourself and others.  Seeing those opportunities all the way thro-ugh from conceptualization to development and execution.” Weber is CFO for Inside Response and Inside Academics, direct marketing firms that serve insurance and financial services companies, as well as higher education. Those venues offer plenty of entrepreneurial challenges to the team, Weber says. “People associate entrepreneurship with starting and running a business, but I don’t believe it should be limited to that. Entrepreneurs create opportunities for others, whether in commerce creating a product or service, new jobs, or bringing on partners, or in the community creating opportunities for the youth and those in need or advancing education.” The companies have grown 10-fold over the past two years. A KU grad who majored in finance and accouting, Weber started with Inside in 2012, after 4 years with Geo. K. Baum & Co.


Nearly two years ago, Creative Planning was looking to restructure its financial planning team. It turned to Andrew Horsman, then a senior analyst with the firm Stepp & Rothwell. Since then, Horsman has helped the Leawood firm drive its assets under management total from $5.85 billion at the end of 2012 to more than $12 billion today. As director of financial planning, Horsman has been intimately involved in defining job roles, crafting a salary structure, hiring the right talent and designing and leading the financial planner training program. The 29-year-old, who earned his finance degree from Clemson University in 2008, finds power in the prefix “RE-.” “I find myself doing what is difficult,” he says, “by regularly reorganizing, refocusing and rescheduling my agenda to accommodate my superiors, clients and colleagues. I am repeatedly willing to sacrifice my own time” to accommodate those needs.


Yes, you can exhibit entrepreneurial values working for others. But it entails more than recognizing business opportunities and capitalizing on them, says Cathryn Vaughn. It “encompasses a true desire to exceed expectations. … You have a vested interest in the success or failure in whatever endeavors you undertake.” That accountability has marked her rise for the past seven years at Gragg Advertising, where she’s now client services manager. She managed client accounts with gross sales of $9.7 million in 2013, nearly one-fourth of the fast-growing company’s overall revenue, and a 95 percent client retention rate over five years. “Having started with an agency that was undergoing extreme growth, it opened up many opportunities to grow professionally along with the company,”  she says. She earned her journalism degree at MU, while also serving as marketing coordinator for two years at a small Columbia law firm.


Preston Owen is just getting started, but he’s coming out of the gate at full speed with three farming and construction ventures. But as an entrepreneur, he’s been in the game for years. Three years ago, he started a farm-leasing operation, aggregating 1,500 acres to grow wheat, soybeans and corn in plots other landowners weren’t tilling. The challenges of knocking on door after door to find available tracts—inspired him to co-found The Farming Spot, an on-line auction site for farm leasing. He’s already got the foundations in and framing up with Brickford Homes, his construction company that builds maintenance-free residential communities. Just months removed from his days at MU, Owen credits his father, Clay County Commissioner Gene Owen, with instilling the drive, and Bill Mann, a Northland developer, “for guiding me every step of the way with the farming and building.” And there’s more: Owen also holds a real-estate license, pilot’s license and a commercial driver’s license.


Working for an assistant basketball coach at Illinois State, Brendan Reilly marveled at the time demands for game-film review, scouting reports and other preparations. What if that training regimen could be digitized, providing a real-time, virtual experience? EON Sports VR is the answer to that challenge. Reilly, the CEO, co-founded it last year, building off what he’d learned about 3D technology’s ability to serve the energy, aerospace, defense and other sectors, including sports.  From large simulators that cost $500,000 each, EON has evolved to mobile and app-based programming in less than two years. “What started off as a project to help the team get better turned into a passion project,” the 27-year-old KU grad said. “Now we have the ability to condense an hour’s worth of repetitions, which in real life can take up to two weeks, into 5-10 minutes at realistic game speeds.” The work has entailed a lot of sleepless nights and support from his wife, Kellie, but the company once envisioned as a service limited to pro sports teams and big-budget colleges is now positioned to serve high school programs—thousands of them—across the nation.


When the leadership at J.P. Morgan Asset Management entrusted Marc Thiele with multi-million-dollar clients, they weren’t disappointed. In part, you can chalk that up to a belief that he must continually prove that the trust in him was well-placed. It’s an attitude that derives from his sense of entrepreneurship: “To me, it means the ability to see a gap in products or services being provided, and have the desire to fill that gap to provide a better client experience,” says the 29-year-old. “It’s never taking ‘no’ for an answer, and constantly striving to achieve better results.” He started at J.P. Morgan in June 2009, after a stint with Prairie Capital Management, and quickly rose through the ranks to vice president and client adviser. As of last month, he’ll get to prove himself all over again with a new organization; his division of J.P. Morgan has been acquired by Great West Financial, based in Denver.


In some ways, 27-year-old Matt Besler is the personification of soccer’s growth in Kansas City over the past decade. He graduated from Blue Valley West High School in 2005, where his senior season ended with a Class 5A state championship. That was a year before the current owners of Sporting Kansas City bought the pro soccer team from founder Lamar Hunt. Before those two dots could be connected, Besler went on to become an All-American defender at Notre Dame, as well as Academic All-American—the first player in Notre Dame’s history to earn both accolades. The hometown boy came full circle when Sporting, then known as the Wizards, drafted Besler in the MLS’ eighth round in 2008. Since then, he’s become a household name in Kansas City soccer circles, twice winning the team’s Defender of the Year honors, and playing on the U.S. team in the FIFA World Cup earlier this year.


Cory Bittner was just 20 years old when he got his first taste of the wealth management business at UBS Financial Services. Now 25, he’s responsible for overseeing $130 million in assets under management, and among more than 7,000 UBS financial advisers nationwide, he ranks in the Top 25 in bringing new relationships worth at least $250,000 into the firm. After earning his degree at the University of Central Missouri, he landed with UBS, but lacking any family and professional ties here, “it was apparent that starting a business that relies on relationships would be a challenge.” By his count, he “arrived” only after making 89,000 cold calls and attending 30 retirement planning seminars to polish his skill set. He also credits mentors who reinforced the idea that hard work and creating opportunities are synonymous. “Growing a large relationship-based business is extremely rewarding,” he said, “and allows me to commit time to clients and the community.”


She had a job offer from the largest law firm in KC—and didn’t take it. Instead, Jennifer Artman spent a year finishing a clerkship with the Missouri Supreme Court, hoping to polish her writing abilities and litigation skills. In 2012, she took them up on that offer at Shook Hardy & Bacon, and started making a difference from Day One. Assigned to the tort division, she provided writing and analysis to successfully defend a $40 million claim against a client. That earned the Top Defense Verdict at the Missouri Lawyers Awards in 2014. After seeing her family devastated by the loss of their farm home near Orrick in the 1993 Missouri River flooding, and watching her parents’ response—her dad went to work at a manufacturing company; her mom took a job to help—“I went to school knowing—at age eight—that I needed to work hard because that’s what my parents did.” It paid off: She earned a full scholarship to Mizzou. “To me,” the 28-year-old says, “this is the true meaning of entrepreneurship: Utilizing the resources always available to me—my mind and work ethic—to achieve success.”


After earning his degree in political science and legal studies, Rich Canale left Rochester, N.Y., and headed to Kansas City—where he excelled in a completely different field: insurance. He’s a senior sales executive for Chattanooga-based Unum, which specializes in employee benefits and had sales of $10.3 billion last year. Canale’s supervisors say the 28-year-old has asserted himself as one of the premier employee-benefit  representatives in the Kansas City marketplace. And he’s earned that reputation while starting a family with his wife, Natalie, and taking night classes at the KU School of Business, where he earned his MBA this year. (He’s also on the Student Advisory Committee Member for the school.) Working with Unum, he says, is similar to a franchise operation, but it’s up to him and his entrepreneurial skills to lead a team, create a market and build a strong distribution channel where the company’s products and services are sold. “I want to help Kansas City companies and employers create attractive and affordable benefits packages that are cost-effective and provide sustainable value for their firm and their employees,” Canale says.


Original thinking. Risk taking. Accountability. Those are the traits valued at the financial services firm Deloitte, and you’ll find each of them in Trevor Nohe’s ample skill set. Nohe, a 29-year-old manager for the firm, says “entrepreneurship is more than starting or running a business; it is a philosophy and an attitude that shapes how people think.” He works with some of the nation’s biggest companies to develop strategic initiatives grounded in entrepreneurial values, on projects ranging from setting growth strategies and cost-savings strategies to technology transformation. Nohe earned Top 10% recognition from the firm this year, up from his Top 15% kudos in 2013. Away from work, he co-founded a non-profit, TEDMED Live Kansas City, raising more than $15,000 for local Parkinson’s disease research. He and his wife, Meg, have two children, Ellis and Whitfield.


Seven. Hundred. Million. That’s how many dollars Cole Helbert oversees as an investment analyst for Merrill Lynch. Not bad for someone who’s 46, but Helbert is just half that: The 23-year-old has made a splash at one of the nation’s biggest investment firms. Keep in mind, he just picked up his degree in general finance at KU in 2013. But he landed an internship at Merrill Lynch in 2011, and the firm didn’t let him get away. His AUM duties make him primarily responsible for constructing and developing his team’s investment outlook, asset allocation and portfolio construction across all asset classes, including equities, fixed income and alternatives. On top of that, Helbert is a Level III candidate in the chartered financial analyst program. His real success, say his bosses, comes from the role he’s played in a “paradigm shift” in the way assets are allocated, moving away from methods in use for two generations to draw on forward-looking, statistical analysis.


Like a lot of IT entrepreneurs, Jason McAninch realized that lots of people needed help with setting up, learning and operating their computer systems—some of it simple stuff, some of it fairly complex. So he started a company. Unlike a lot of entrepreneurs, he laid the foundation for his company, J-Tek, when he was just 13 years old. As a teenage business owner, he concedes, “all odds were against me.” But that fledgling sense of business ownership and word of mouth helped him keep J-Tek going while was earning a degree in management from Ottawa University, following stops at Johnson County Community College and KU. And after he landed a role with the Mill Valley School District. But at 24, he left that full-time job to focus on building a client base that then numbered about 20 in the Kansas City area. Four years, later, his company is serving 800 clients in multiple states, and McAninch is working to open a second location in Fort Worth, Texas, this fall. “Anything in life is subject to constant improvement, and that is why I find entrepreneurship such a rewarding challenge,” McAninch says, “because my work is never done.”


She defines entrepreneurship as “the outlet for industry shakers, improvement makers and chance-takers,” and Katie Yeager is all of those. The 28-year-old owns Your Future Address, a real-estate company born from a perceived gap. “I’ve applied what I learned at Babson (College) about the opportunities that come with industry disruption to my industry, real estate,” Yeager says, “by creating a flat-fee, full-service real-estate brokerage” because she saw a disconnect between the service and price offerings for listings by realty agents. The gap? A stubborn refusal to modify commission rates of 6-7 percent, despite technological advances that had made transactions far more efficient. With her company, the average seller pays 4 percent in total commission, including 3 percent to a buyer’s agent. Result? Over $50 million in sales in four years, and the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors Newcomer of the Year Award in 2010.


Working for the Federal Reserve Bank of KC as a bank examiner, Matt Heimann monitors four bank holding companies with combined assets of $30 billion. But there’s more to this 27-year-old than simply crunching numbers. He’s already flashed his entrepreneurial skills as a member of a team that won the Regnier Family Foundations/Bank of Blue Valley Venture Creation Challenge at the UMKC in 2012. Their project: producing a business plan for a quick, affordable test to screen CD4 counts in HIV/AIDS patients, which would identify patients eligible for anti-retroviral therapy. Heimann earned his MBA in entrepreneurship at UMKC and is working to become a Level II chartered financial analyst by 2015. That will lay the foundation for his own financial-services company. “I am energized by my aspirations of the future,” Heimann says, thoughtfully, “and it is this unique, forward-looking perspective that has consistently motivated me to elevate my level of performance.”


In November 2012, just a few months removed from the comparatively risk-free life of a college student, Jerry Mancuso rolled the dice. “With all the changes in the insurance industry, I took a risk by getting into this business,” says the 24-year-old benefits consultant for Bukaty Companies, the Overland Park-based insurance company that underwrote $385 million in premium volume last year. But a gamble isn’t a gamble if you’re betting on yourself and you like the odds. “I have to compete every day and maintain an open mind to find opportunities,” Mancuso says, but he’s found a formula for success by “applying creativity, having a passion for what I do and striving for the greater good.” That desire to serve the greater good also compelled him to jump in as a member of the steering committee for the Catholic Charities Foundation’s annual fund-raising event, Soiree. A Rockhurst High grad, Mancuso continued his Jesuit education by crossing the state to Saint Louis University, where he earned a bachelor’s in business administration, focusing on finance.


 Few QBs in the NFL rank higher than KC’s Alex Smith. But you don’t have to look far to find one who does: 28-year-old Chase Daniel, who happens to also be a Chief—Smith’s backup. Since joining the Chiefs  in 2013, after limited action in three seasons behind Drew Brees in New Orleans, Daniel has appeared in five regular-season games. But his career QB rating of 83.9 tops even that of Smith’s 81.0. So secure was his position, the team didn’t play Daniel in one of its preseason games, testing younger players for the No. 3 spot. A native Texan, Daniel became a favorite of Missouri fans by leading the most successful stretch in the history of Mizzou football. In three seasons, he threw for more than 12,500 yards and 101 touchdowns—39 of them in his senior season—leading the team to Big XII North Division championships in 2007 and 2008 and to its first No. 1 ranking since 1960. Publisher Joe Sweeney has followed Daniel’s career and believes “Chase has the skill, drive and tenacity to not only be our starting QB but also the on-field leader to bring the Chiefs back as a perennial contender.”


A true entrepreneur has a vision, even if he doesn’t know where it will ultimately take him. That’s been the case for Adam Arredondo, currently co-leader of Kansas City Startup Village, the local grass-roots initiative formed to capitalize on an asset almost unique to this city: Google Fiber’s ultra-high-speed Internet Service. In that capacity, the 29-year-old Arredondo has helped secure $40,000 in funding from Sprint and NetWork Kansas that’s been used to renovate space for budding entrepreneurs, sent some of them to out-of-town networking trips, and engaged legislators in policy discussions to help fertilize the small-business garden. He did much of that work while trying to get his own ventures off the ground with Local Ruckus and Hoopla.io, Web sites that attempted to tackle the immense challenges of aggregating social and business events calendars. Both efforts closed down in July, allowing Arredondo to focus on the Village. “Kansas City has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity  with Google Fiber and the excitement surrounding it,” he says. “We have to make sure we don’t let the window close.”