Meet the East Central judges
The success of the program relies on the efforts of our independent panel of judges. The panel comprises past Entrepreneur Of The Year® Award recipients and civic and community leaders who devote significant effort to review and deliberate the merits of each nominee.
Click any judge's name for additional information. The downloadable summary of judge bios can be found here.
Co-founder and CEO
2022 award winner
Abdul Akel cofounded T-CETRA in 2007 and has grown it to a half-billion-dollar financial technology solutions enabler that employs approximately 175 team members hailing from 30 countries and speaking 20 different languages. T-CETRA is the leading payment solutions for the prepaid wireless industry and supports a network of 10,000 retailers.
Fifteen years ago, Abdul set out to improve the quality of life for the underbanked by creating a world of digital and financial inclusion. Abdul witnessed a widening digital divide — the fissure between the digital “haves” and “have nots,” a large percentage of whom are the underbanked. The have nots lack access to basic products and services that their banked peers take for granted. Today, there are 84.8 million underbanked in the US, approximately 25% of the population. Abdul continually seeks opportunities to overcome the obstacles they encounter every day due to their income level or place of residence.
He accomplished this through conceptualizing VIDAPAY, a proprietary cash-to-cashless payment solution. VIDAPAY accepts and applies cash payments for products and services, in real time, in person and without fees to the end consumer. The net result of these transactions is the financial enablement of the underbanked, providing them with access to new products and services and a toolset to effectively manage their financial wellbeing and improve their quality of life.
Abdul was an Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2022 East Central Award winner, a 2022 national finalist, and was inducted into Columbus Business First’s 40 Under 40 and Columbus CEO’s Future 50 Class of 2022. But it’s his tenacity in spirit to do the right thing that has set him apart from the crowd. In a rapidly evolving payments landscape, the underbanked are often forgotten or targeted for predatory lending. It’s technology stewards like Abdul who won’t let this happen. Simply put, his mission is to “make the underserved the better served.”
T-CETRA is a leading financial technology enabler that converts cash payments into secure, auditable, cashless transactions at over 10,000 independent retailers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico that primarily serve underbanked customers. Our payment solutions bridge the digital divide for these underserved communities and are used by Fortune 500 companies within various sectors, connecting them to the 84.8 million underbanked individuals in the U.S via an independent retail network. Back to top
CEO, Magee-Women's Research
Institute and Foundation
Michael Annichine is the CEO of Magee-Womens Research Institute and Foundation (MWRIF), leading the development to sustain research and programs at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital and the Magee-Womens Research Institute, the largest research institute in the US focused solely on women’s health and reproductive biology.
The research institute — based in Pittsburgh and with collaborations around the world — is home to hundreds of world-class researchers who have devoted their careers to advancing the health of women. Its medical research spans a woman’s lifetime, from nine months to over 90 years, and its focus is to improve women’s lives by learning more about the various conditions and diseases from which they suffer.
Under Michael’s leadership, MWRIF has expanded its partnerships with industry, academia and foundations, and has significantly grown its revenue base while capitalizing on the translational impact of its scientific investment.
Michael is a seasoned professional with more than 20 years’ experience starting, developing and leading local and national businesses across a variety of growth industries. Prior to his current position, Michael held the chief executive roles in C-leveled, FlyerCity Media and CFS Home Loans, Inc., where his companies were twice named to the Inc. 1000 Fastest-Growing Companies in America list. A Carnegie Mellon University alumni and former Director of Investment Programs at the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, he has measurably impacted the Pittsburgh startup ecosystem and built strong connections within the business, private equity and venture capital communities.
Today, Magee-Womens Research Institute is solving real-world problems and impacting lives — in the fields of cancer, heart disease, fertility, HIV, Alzheimer’s and more. Back to top
Founder, President and CEO, SPR Therapeutics, Inc.
2021 award winner
Maria Bennett has been the President and CEO of SPR Therapeutics since she founded the company 13 years ago. Using her years of experience in the MedTech industry, Maria identified an unmet market need for a non-opioid, nonsurgical pain treatment to improve the lives of millions of pain sufferers. The idea for this new treatment originated during her biomedical engineering graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University, where she developed a peripheral nerve stimulation (PNS) system to treat pain and also led R&D at an early stage neurostim company.
During this experience, Maria discovered her passion for working with patients and physicians and witnessing life-changing results. She also learned the challenges of growing and sustaining an entrepreneurial company. From there, Maria was recruited to lead a team at Boston Scientific to conduct a large clinical trial, which demonstrated the safety and efficacy of an innovative angioplasty balloon and achieved FDA approval. While it was a great experience to work for a large MedTech company, when a former colleague presented the opportunity to join a new startup company, she couldn’t resist and returned to Cleveland to serve as Vice President of Clinical at NDI Medical. At NDI, she played a vital role in the development of a neurostim system addressing urinary incontinence, which was acquired by Medtronic in 2008. After the sale of NDI, Maria revisited her idea of a novel pain relief therapy, validated there was an unmet market need and founded SPR Therapeutics to commercialize its SPRINT® PNS System. She is the inventor of SPRINT, having multiple patents issued.
She earned her BS in Engineering Management from Miami University and earned her MS in Biomedical Engineering from Case Western Reserve University. Maria gives back to her community through volunteering and is a retired vice president of her district’s school board. She is a past Entrepreneur Of The Year® East Central Region finalist and winner. Maria is married and the proud mother of two sons.
SPR Therapeutics is committed to relieving pain and improving the lives of millions of pain sufferers with its FDA approved SPRINT® Peripheral Nerve Stimulation System designed to be an early treatment option without opioids or surgery. Back to top
President and CEO, Emerge Manufacturing
2020 award winner
Cynthia Booth is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Denison University and a master’s degree from Indiana Wesleyan University. She is also a graduate of the Harvard Business School Executive Program on Corporate Strategy.
Cynthia has an impressive professional background. She began her professional career as a banker with Firstar Bank (now U.S. Bank). During her tenure as a banker, she held many senior-level positions and became one of the highest-ranking females in the bank and the only African American serving at the executive level.
In August 2000, Cynthia became President, CEO and Owner of COBCO Enterprises, a privately held company that owned McDonald’s franchises. She successfully led the company for two decades and received multiple awards for the performance of her company.
In 2021, Cynthia decided to launch a new company, Emerge Manufacturing, and is currently the President and CEO. Emerge Manufacturing is an onshore manufacturing company that specializes in manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE).
Cynthia is the recipient of many community and civic awards, some of which include the YWCA Career Women of Achievement Award, the University of Cincinnati Business School Entrepreneurial Excellence Award and the Goering Center Family and Private Business Award. She is an inductee into the African American Chamber Black Business Hall of Fame.
In 2020, Cynthia received the prestigious Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2020 East Central Region Award.
She was honored at the White House by President George W. Bush as an outstanding businessperson. She has also been featured in Fortune magazine and has appeared on CNN Money Talks.
Cynthia serves on the boards of First Financial Bank, Denison University, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, TriHealth and the Cincinnati Minority Business Accelerator.
Emerge Manufacturing is an onshore manufacturing company that specializes in manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE). The company’s primary industry focus is health care. Back to top
Co-founder and Partner
Magarac Venture Partners
Zach Malone is a partner at Magarac Venture Partners, a venture capital firm based in Pittsburgh (formerly known as Draper Triangle Ventures). He currently serves as a board member on behalf of the firm at Day Owl and Locomation. Prior to joining the firm, he worked as an analyst at UPMC Enterprises and Gateway Financial. He currently serves on the board of the Pittsburgh Venture Capital Association, The Mattress Factory Board of Directors, the City of Pittsburgh’s Startup Advisory Board and the Capital Foundry. Zach received his BS in Finance from Virginia Tech.
Magarac Venture Partners is an early-stage venture capital firm based in Pittsburgh, PA. At MVP, we are proud to invest in the Midwest’s most extraordinary entrepreneurs as they set out to change the world. Back to top
2020 award winner
Passionate about travel and technology, Jody Richards is the president of Process Technology based in Cleveland, Ohio. Using her passions to guide her, Jody transformed Process Technology from a regional player serving automotive and aerospace into the world’s leading supplier of semiconductor manufacturing products critical to the production of microprocessors and memory chips. Prior to joining Process Technology, Jody’s background was in operations and IT, including working as a consultant to the U.S. Navy in Japan. Jody has a BA in French and Spanish; an MA in French and Japanese; and speaks Japanese, French and Spanish fluently. Jody also holds an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. In 2020, Jody was an Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2020 East Central Award winner.
Process Technology leads global innovation in process heating and power supplies for the semiconductor, flat panel display, aerospace, automotive and medical device industries with eco-friendly solutions. Back to top
CEO, Kensington Hill Partners
2004 award winner
Jeff Sopp is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kensington Hill Partners. Kensington Hill Partners specializes in board advisory services, business consulting and equity investments, including leading-edge technology, InsurTech, quick-serve restaurants (QSRs), real estate and other industries throughout the US. Prior to founding Kensington Hill, Jeff was CEO of PRIVIT, which focused on providing secure web-based solutions to help individuals, athletes, organizations and companies collect, transmit and store records for health-related information.
Prior to joining PRIVIT, Jeff was the CEO of Expesite, an internationally recognized project and program management software company with offices in the US, Canada and Hong Kong. Under Jeff’s leadership, Expesite was named as one of the Inc. 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies in America for six consecutive years (2007–12). Jeff expanded Expesite’s business solutions through acquisitions and partnerships with industry leaders in technology and within the market segments in which Expesite served. Expesite was acquired by a leading Austin-based private equity firm, for which Jeff continues to serve on its Advisory Board. Prior to joining Expesite, Jeff served in executive positions within services industries, including County Savings Bank, Nationwide Insurance, Adecco USA, Inc. and Xerox Corporation. Jeff received the 2021 Smart 50 Business Award for the third time, was a proud recipient of an Entrepreneur Of The Year® Award for “realizing business potential” and a finalist for the Entrepreneur Of The Year National Awards. In addition, Expesite’s corporate philanthropy program was awarded the Pillar Award presented by Smart Business Magazine and the Corporate Caring Award presented by Columbus Business First. Jeff is also a past Chairman of the Board of the Central Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
Our team of entrepreneurial professionals and business experts has over three decades of experience in helping small, medium and Fortune 500 companies grow. From advising on all facets of the executive scope to infusing new ideas to strengthen and improve performance — Kensington Hill Partners is committed to transforming organizations for optimal growth and success, strengthening communities, and supporting one another. We believe in providing only the highest level of integrity, while also providing world-class expertise to create and achieve the greatest level of client satisfaction and value. Back to top