These seven women, all under 40, are making an impact across the region with their hard work and dedication. It’s hard not to be inspired by their passion and enthusiasm!
Roanoke City Council
Executive Director, Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Virginia
34 years old
Michelle Dykstra ran for Roanoke City Council in spring 2016, taking office in July. Though her prior government experience was limited, her background of business, community and nonprofit development allowed for new representation on the council.
“What I hope people look for and why they elected me is that they’re looking for someone who had a variety of backgrounds from which I hopefully presented with a well-rounded decision-making capability,” she says.
Dykstra is only the seventh woman to serve on city council, and is glad to have more female representation. She and Vice Mayor Anita Price are serving concurrent four-year terms, the first time two women have served all four years together.
So far, she describes her experience as “amazing,” and that her variety of skill sets developed from random parts of her life are finally coming together in one place, whether it’s volunteerism or business development. As she continues to build upon them, she’s glad to feel like she’s contributing to the city in a meaningful way.
“I was not one of those people who graduated from college knowing exactly what I was going to do,” she says. “But I have always been the type of person who fills every minute of my day. What I do on a daily basis is complementary to what I do on city council...I get to talk about things I’m passionate about, whether it’s kids or community development or neighborhood revitalization. All of those things are not only city council-related, they relate to my job and they’re also my own personal passions.”
The uphill battle began in January 2016 when she announced her decision to run. Her first three phone calls after that were to current council members.
“I didn’t want them to tell me I’d win, but I wanted to know if it was even possible for a 33-year-old woman to get elected,” she says. “Because if you tell me it’s possible, I’ll tell you I can do it. But I didn’t know the lay of the land, and wanted to know if it was an all-boys club, that type of thing. They were honest, telling me the ups and downs of campaigning and being in politics.”
She’s also recently added the title of executive director of Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwestern Virginia. It’s a full-time job on top of her council duties, and Dykstra does it all with style and poise, calling it a tremendous opportunity.
When she’s not in council chambers or at her job, she’s staying strong with CrossFit and running. She values good relationships with friends, as well as spending time with family. Her main focus is her three-year-old daughter Elsa, and they stay busy with swim lessons, children’s theater classes and spending time with her friends. Being a role model is one of the most important things for Dykstra.
“It was a huge part of my decision to run,” she says. “Being able to model that for Elsa and saying I’m interested without knowing how it’d turn out, but I was willing to dive in and see what happened. Even if I hadn’t won city council, I would’ve found something else to focus on and do.”
Elsa isn’t the only one who sees her as a role model. When speaking to younger people, Dykstra stresses the importance of putting yourself out there, as well as surrounding yourself with supportive people.
“I wasn’t asked to run, but when I raised my hand and expressed interest, people were supportive and helped me explore the opportunity. As women and younger people, we should take advantage of that and speak up to get involved and serve. It’s easy to get a seat at the table here.”
Treble Makers Music
31 years old
To traveling music teacher Candace Blair, music is much more than just music. In a music class, preschoolers can learn about cooperation, how to follow directions and interact with other children, have a social and emotional outlet, and get their energy out. It’s thanks to Blair that there are several opportunities in Roanoke provided to do just that.
Blair is the children’s music director at Covenant Presbyterian Church, as well as the preschool music teacher there. She conducts private lessons in the church’s studio for 34 children, is an assisting teacher at North Cross and is also a preschool music teacher at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. She teaches piano, clarinet, flute and saxophone, and sees more than 200 kids on a weekly basis. She also occasionally donates music lessons for charity auctions or other good causes.
“It takes a lot of organization, but I love it. It takes time learning everyone’s names, but they’re my family,” Blair says with a laugh. “I found music with little children was my calling.”
Blair’s been giving private lessons since she was in high school, teaching middle schoolers out of her parents’ basement. Originally from Virginia Beach, Blair has a music education degree from VCU. She began her career in the public school system and moved to Roanoke for a teaching position at the Roanoke Valley Montessori school, gaining her certification as well. She offered music classes for an after-school activity, which steamrolled into something bigger. In 2014, she started her own business, Treble Makers Music.
She’s worked with a full range of ages, but finds the younger children to be her favorite because she loves being the first one to introduce them to musical instruments and watch them create their first note. As a kid, she was shy, but when she started playing music at 11 years old, it gave her an outlet to make friends. Her dad asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she told him she wanted to be a music teacher. Even now as an adult, she still wants to be one when she grows up!
“Music just helped me so much to come out of my shell,” she says. “Many music teachers won’t take a private lesson students until they’re older, but I really enjoy tapping into that young brain. I think a lot of preschoolers play alongside their peers, but might not have figured out how to play with them. To see that child go to an instrument basket and share with another child or sit with us and sing along or laugh is a really important thing.”
Blair plays all the instruments she teaches, and is a classically trained musician. She can strum chords on a guitar, but is “definitely a woodwind player” in addition to her love for piano. She calls her career a “dream come true” and will host her first-ever studio recital in March. She’s excited for the experience, and to share her students’ hard work playing an instrument and sharing it with their loved ones.
“The parents of my students, I’ve had some for a long time so they know me well,” she says. “They know their kid is my family. I want to be in their lives even after they move on from my classes. They’re my kids!”
When she finds time for a day off, she loves to do yoga and go on girls’ hikes with her friends. Recently engaged, she’s planning her wedding for later this year. She adores attending the Roanoke Symphony, citing Music Director David Wiley as a huge inspiration, and has admired his work from afar during every concert. Not surprisingly, she has friends in the local music scene, and will often try to catch their shows around town.
“That’s one cool thing about Roanoke, we do have an eclectic mix of artists and people trying to create art in this community, whether it’s music or painting or yoga classes. There are so many cool, different entrepreneurs here,” she says.
Blair has been in Roanoke for almost six years, and loved the city instantly thanks to its natural beauty and close-knit community. She can’t wait to start a family of her own and raise them here. She hopes her business continues to thrive, though she plans to keep it at the intimate level rather than add on other teachers or classes. In her mind, it’s all about what’s best for her students, rather than herself.
“I like that it’s personal and all of my students are connected to me. I would love to see where my students are then compared to now and see their joy for music grow, and how it helps them.”
Previous Director of CoLab
28 years old
Ariel Lev is probably a name you’ve heard several times in the last couple years, particularly when discussing the CoLab or CityWorksXpo. At time of print, Lev has just made the announcement of handing off her director’s title to Brad Stephens, and the possibilities in front of her are endless. For now, we take a look at her CoLab experiences and how they’ve helped shape her into the remarkable young woman she is today.
Lev and her husband Sam moved from D.C. to Floyd, quickly making contacts through the farmers market at the community market where she worked. It was there she met Brent Cochran, who would be a much bigger asset than she realized at the time. She and Sam spent a fun, interesting year in Floyd, enjoyed their honeymoon and moved to Roanoke. Without a job, Lev contacted Cochran, who introduced her to Ed Walker. A few projects here and there turned into full-time work as the CoLab director in October 2014, followed by becoming the CityWorksXpo organizer. Three years later, Lev marvels at the opportunities she’s had so far.
“I’ve met such incredibly visionary leaders in the area,” she says. “Not only do I get to learn from then, but I see the next generation of leadership growing through the CoLab’s perspective and the communities we touch. If I had to summarize what I’ve done for the last three years, it’s sort of as a middle man between the leadership and the brilliant minds who haven’t yet found their place or voice. Whether it’s in the business ownership realm, community development or nonprofit world, we can help them figure out the next best step for them if they need that help. If they don’t, I just sit back and watch them do that awesome work. It’s a lot of listening and learning.”
Originally from Burlington, North Carolina, Lev received a bachelor’s in communications broadcasting from Appalachian State University. She followed that with a master’s in communication culture and technology at Georgetown University, studying how people communicate from the theoretical side all the way to how sound gets out of a microphone, out of speakers and into your ears. She also studied the future of communications, and how technology impacts things like television and print and digital means.
“I couldn’t have picked or been in a better job [than the CoLab], because that’s what I do. We talk about technology all the time and how it impacts people,” she says. “Even our members that work with a trade will sometimes come in to do accounting with software, so it’s all hooked into that technology side which is important for my background to have that continuing education with that since it changes so fast. I’m thankful to tech-savvy members who have kept me updated on that stuff.”
Lev is glad to have had big-city experiences because it helped her understand more about the world. When she and her husband left the D.C. area, they weren’t sure where they wanted to be, and ended up picking Roanoke off a map. They knew they wanted a city that didn’t completely revolve around a university, preferring a consistent, non-transient population of people who choose to stay in the area.
Now she and Sam own their home in the Grandin neighborhood. Lev runs the foodie-based Instagram account for @eatrke, showcasing all the unique restaurants Roanoke has to offer. As Sam works in the food industry, they’re conscious about what they eat and where it comes from, and they love trying new things and shopping at farmers markets. They also enjoy hiking and running, and anything else outdoors.
Lev is also a dedicated weaver, initially started as a stress-relieving hobby. She loved it immediately, and began posting photos online to share her work. She was surprised by a number of people asking to buy the finished product. Rather than turn it into a profit-driven exercise that would take away the fun, she decided to sell her work and donate the profits. Her first $1,000 went to Angels of Assisi, and while she understands the money will go where needed within the nonprofit, she hopes some of the money will be used for their senior dogs, as it’s a personal passion for her. The next thousand will go to another animal-oriented nonprofit, spreading the love across city and county lines.
"I try to get a little bit of weaving done every night. It never gets old and is so much fun,” she says. “I also feel like donations opens up a different type of accessibility for people. It’s more of a gift for themselves because not only do they love the work, but it reminds them that it connects to the community in a deeper way.”
... for the rest of this story, including cover subject WSLS anchor Brie Jackson, Roanoke Regional Chamber's Cally Smith, RCPD's Jaclyn Chaddic and kid journalist Ava Rosa, and more from our March/April 2017 issue, Subscribe today, view our FREE interactive digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!