As it appeared on The Citizens Voice

PLAINS TWP. — Young professionals and students from eight high schools and 15 colleges and universities joined together at the inaugural Wilkes-Barre Connect Conference at the Woodlands Inn Monday and listened to inspirational stories from local entrepreneurs.

Joseph Boylan, executive director of the Wilkes-Barre Connect which is powered by the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce, said the goal of the conference, which continues today and concludes with the chamber annual dinner, is to “educate, motivate and inspire.”

The event allows students to “meet amazing business leaders, community and non-profit leaders who are doing amazing things here and more importantly, learn how they can get involved,” he said.

“What we want to do is showcase our region,” Boylan said. “We’re not going to stop until we get the area and the community that we want.”

Seven business leaders who offered the morning keynote each addressed the question, “Why Northeastern Pennsylvania?”

Kris Jones

Jones, entrepreneur and the founder of Internet marketing agency Pepperjam, kicked off the morning by telling attendees that the “energy in this room is amazing.”

He said the panel’s purpose was to give young people “a representation of what could be in Northeastern Pennsylvania.”

Jones recently acquired properties formerly owned by GUARD Insurance at 16 and 24 S. River St. in downtown Wilkes-Barre and set up a business accelerator, the second in the state. He also is the co-founder of Special Guest App, that allows people to hire live entertainment on demand through mobile and Internet apps.

He told students they could learn from the panel of business leaders who “decided to spend their lives here, to embrace Northeastern Pennsylvania as a place not only to do business but to make a difference.”

Holly Pilcavage

Pilcavage, director of operations and business development for Coal Creative in downtown Wilkes-Barre, said every day, she has the opportunity to work with creative people to tell the stories of partners and nonprofit organizations in Northeast Pennsylvania.

In the last few years, she said Coal Creative has grown from two employees to 10.

“You’re asking me ‘Why Northeastern Pennsylvania?’ It’s because we have a story to tell,” Pilcavage said. “I personally want to be part of the narrative and I want to help change and lead that.”

Pilcavage said she moved back home to Northeast Pennsylvania after earning her master’s degree and knew she had to make a difference.

“There’s actually so much happening here, so many incredible things,” she said. “It dawned on me that I could be the person who could run up and down the streets letting everybody know what’s going on.”

Helen Lavelle

Lavelle, president of Lavelle Strategy Group, answered the question “Why Northeastern Pennsylvania?” with another question: “Why not?”

She said she was 28 years old when she launched her marketing, advertising and public relations agency in Scranton. Today, she is 63.

When she entered the market, she said there was a “good ol’ boys network” and women and people of different races weren’t given opportunities.

Later, Lavelle was elected chair of the American Advertising Federation which has about 50,000 members.

“I contributed,” she said. “How did I get there? Because there was someone, an individual person, who thought I could make a difference. Every one of us could make a difference.”

Lavelle said the woman who recognized her talent, determination and passion as a young woman was Patricia Martin, who worked for the Wall Street Journal.

“Times have changed,” she said. “I worked so hard to embrace every young person I could from the moment I opened my agency.”

Nicole Farber

Farber, CEO of ENX2 Marketing, called herself the “different one” on the panel.

She said she had a tumultuous childhood and formerly wanted to get out of Northeast Pennsylvania after growing up in the small town of Centermoreland.

“I grew up very poor and I didn’t have the means that everybody has here so I struggled many different ways,” Farber said. “I didn’t have the money. I didn’t have the means. I didn’t have anything.”

Farber, a single mother, said her son Nikolus was born when she was 24 years old.

“I struggled with many different things but I knew there was something greater,” she said. “I kept thinking it was outside of NEPA. It wasn’t. It was right here.”

Farber said she didn’t get a computer until she was in her 20s and taught herself to build websites. She said she started talking to people like Lavelle, who inspired her. Her company has grown to provide digital marketing services throughout the country and it recently became an international firm.

“I knew in my heart I was meant to be somebody,” she said. “I thought if all these other people could do things, why not me?”

Gerard Durling

Durling, the founder of Coal Creative who also launched an independent wrestling streaming service, said he wanted to be a professional wrestler when he was a kid.

When he was 14, he taught himself to make websites. He worked at Burger King, which didn’t pay enough for him to get to wrestling school.

He later became a customer service representative for and told the company’s CEO Spencer Chesman that he could make websites.

“Because of that, I started my own website company called Coal Creative, partially because I wanted the option to work with my friends and collaborate with creative minds,” Durling said.

Over time, Durling said he learned to embrace where is from.

“There’s no better time to live in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton than right now because of how popular ‘The Office’ is on Netflix,” he said. “The amount of opportunities that exist in our community are so much greater and you just need one opportunity to get involved with everyone who’s here.”

Chris Nash

Nash came to Northeast Pennsylvania from a small town in upstate New York and now serves as president of digital marketing agency LSEO, another company Jones founded.

Like Farber and Durling, he also taught himself to build websites. He formerly served on the technology team for Forty Fort-based All About Dance, which was sold in 2011 to the largest online dancewear company in the U.S.

He said one of the reasons Northeast Pennsylvania is so special is that if you want to be successful here, “the people here will embrace every single thing you do.”

“That’s different than the rest of the country,” Nash said. “We have this strange negative pride in this area where people speak ill in some instances about Northeastern Pennsylvania but in the same token, they’re so damn proud to be from here. I feel like I’m from here. I have been here 20 years and I literally feel like I’m part of NEPA now.”

Ryan Hertel

Hertel, owner of marketing agency Socialocca in downtown Wilkes-Barre, said he believes people in Northeast Pennsylvania “don’t give ourselves enough credit for what’s going on here.”

“We all obviously care,” Hertel said. “There is a ton of potential. It’s almost being undermined. There’s so much more here than a lot of other places have.”