Session Leaders and Panelists


Melanie Seiler

Meet Melanie Seiler

BIO - As a native of southern West Virginia, Melanie grew up embracing outdoor recreation pursuing a degree in Adventure Sports earning certifications in river guiding, swift water rescue instruction, ski instruction, ski patrol, and stand up paddle board instruction. Named a 2017 Generation Next 40 under 40, the first executive director of Active Southern West Virginia, and hosting the first WV stand up paddle board whitewater race in 2010 have provided experiences in leading communities towards health goals. Improving the health of communities and the quality of life for residents will strengthen the workforce in southern West Virginia.

Taylor Bennett

Meet Taylor Bennett

BIO - Originally from one of two counties in New York State which are classified as part of "Greater Appalachia," Taylor Bennett is delighted to finally be able to call West Virginia home. She's the Community Based Policy Coordinator for the WV Community Development Hub and is passionate about finding policy solutions to community development challenges at both the state and local level. When she's not working through local policy issues with Municipal officials or supporting state-wide policy teams, you can find her wearing out her hiking boots on new trails with her three dogs, Buddy, Moxxi, and Archer.

Elizabeth Spellman

Meet Elizabeth Spellman

BIO - Elizabeth brings organizing, legal, and farming perspectives to her work supporting healthy food systems and holistic medicine, particularly in Appalachia. Her broad perspective—developed through work from West Virginia to the San Joaquin Valley of California—stems from her faith in food systems as a catalyst for social, environmental, and economic justice; environmental health; and a new economy. Her current consulting projects include farmer program development with Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP) in Roanoke, VA; food policy with Chesapeake Foodshed Network; development of a pay-what-you-can restaurant with Helping Overcome Poverty’s Existence (HOPE) in Wytheville, VA; and connecting small farmers and organizations with the medicinal herb industry through Taproot Botanical Alliance in Floyd and Duffield, VA. Elizabeth serves on the board of directors of Sprouting Farms and volunteers with Cooperation Central Appalachia and Roanoke Community Acupuncture. Elizabeth attends Jung Tao School of Classical Chinese Medicine part-time. She and her partner have a diversified vegetable and poultry farm in the Alleghany Highlands of Virginia. Elizabeth holds bachelor degrees from the University of Virginia, and a J.D. from Vermont Law School.

Natalie Roper

Meet Natalie Roper

BIO - Natalie Roper has been the Executive Director of Generation West Virginia (GWV) since October 2014. Natalie works with local and state partners to strengthen statewide programming and infrastructure needed to attract, retain, and advance young talent in the Mountain State. Natalie received her undergraduate degree and Master’s Degree in Public Policy from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. With an interdisciplinary background in nonprofit administration, grassroots advocacy, and social innovation, Natalie leads GWV’s efforts to serve as a voice and a source of action for young West Virginians. Natalie is a 2016 WV Living “Wonder Woman,” 2015 WV Woman Rising Star and a proud alumna of the 2015 Leadership WV Class. A West Virginian by choice, Natalie is motivated each day to help make the state a place where more of the next generation can choose to stay.

Jeremy Turner

Meet Jeremy Turner

BIO - Jeremy Turner is the Founder and Managing Director of EPIC Mission, a coaching and consulting firm for entrepreneurs, nonprofits and small businesses. He holds a BA in Psychology from Marshall University and is currently pursuing an MBA with a focus on Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise. Jeremy has served in leadership roles for industry giants and grassroots startups within the for-profit and nonprofit sectors and has served on over a dozen nonprofit boards, including his current role on the advisory board with Ten50, the business accelerator at RCBI. Mr. Turner is a DISC-Certified Behavioral Coach and Consultant and a Certified Coach with Ministry Ventures, an organization providing resources and coaching support to churches, ministries and ministry-based nonprofits. Jeremy is a sought after coach, consultant, speaker and trainer for topics including board development, communication, entrepreneurship, leadership development, organizational development, succession planning and strategic planning, and for the last two years he has served as a Business Coach for the West Virginia Governor's School of Entrepreneurship. Jeremy has returned home to West Virginia after nearly 20 years in North Carolina, living in Huntington with his wife Brandie and their two dogs and two cats.

Stephen Smith

Meet Stephen Smith

BIO - Stephen Smith is the Director of the WV Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, a movement-building organization that seeks to make West Virginia the best place to live, work, and raise a family – no matter who you are. The Coalition works with everyday citizens to transform and revive our schools, congregations, communities, and government. Stephen is a veteran community organizer with stints in Boston, Chicago, overseas, and here in WV – helping win campaigns for better education, economic justice, immigrant rights, health, and racial justice. He is also the author of Stoking the Fire of Democracy: Our Generation’s Introduction to Grassroots Organizing. Stephen was born in Charleston, WV, where he now lives with his brilliant wife Sara and fiery son Jackson.

Sam Petsonk

Meet Sam Petsonk

BIO - Sam Petsonk is an attorney at the nonprofit legal services organization Mountain State Justice, where he launched the Miner Safety & Health Project as a Skadden Fellow. The workers’ rights practice at Mountain State Justice encompasses occupational health and safety, workplace discrimination, employee benefits, cooperative enterprise, and more. Sam earned his juris doctor at Washington & Lee University, and his undergraduate degree in geography at Brandeis University. He previously served as a legislative assistant for U.S. Senators Robert C. Byrd and Carte Goodwin in Washington, DC on energy and labor policy.

J. Morgan Leach

Meet J. Morgan Leach

BIO - J. Morgan is a graduate of WVU College of Law. He has received his J.D. from the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development and is now a practicing attorney in the State of West Virginia. Morgan has taken a keen interest in the field of industrial and medical cannabis, sprouting from his interest in local foods and sustainable agriculture. Morgan is well versed in the legal and regulatory requirements for the new wave of cannabis entrepreneurs in West Virginia. He is a co-founder of the state's first Hemp Farming Cooperative, WVFC Inc., and is the Executive Director of the WVHIA, a trade association dedicated to the fair treatment of hemp farmers, researchers, processors, and value added businesses.

Christy Laxton

Meet Christy Laxton

BIO - Christy Laxton is currently the Executive Director of the Wyoming County Economic Development Authority (EDA). Mrs. Laxton has served as the Executive Director since 2005 at the EDA where she has been employed since 2001. Mrs. Laxton has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration with majors in both Accounting and Finance from Concord (College) University. Mrs. Laxton has been a lifelong resident of Wyoming County and serves as a member on over 20 Boards and Committees within and around the county and state. She serves as an officer on four of those Boards. She was previously involved in six additional Boards and Committees of which she was an officer of three of those Boards and Committees. Mrs. Laxton was certified as an Economic Development Finance Professional in May 2010. In addition to the Boards and Committees, Mrs. Laxton has been a T-Ball Coach, Youth Basketball Coach, Youth Group Leader and also volunteered for Junior Achievement in the school system. Mrs. Laxton currently resides in Pineville, WV with her husband (married in 2001) and their four children; Luke, Andrea, Sydney, and Nathan. She is the primary caretaker of her Mother, Cindy, who resided with her for 4 1⁄2 years after her debilitating stroke in January 2008. Mrs. Laxton loves her county and strives to make it a better place by being actively involved.

Xavier Walter

Meet Xavier Walter

BIO - Hard working entrepreneur and lifetime learner who, after serving in the United States Navy, established a career in the construction, finance & lending industry. Xavier is involved in every aspect of the energy efficiency projects from inception to completion, including but not limited to; current utility bill review, contract review, rebate and incentive details, installation oversight and Quality Control Inspection, post installation. He is currently working with various BPI accredited contractors (myself a previously Certified BPI proctor) with in-depth home retrofit knowledge, and actively conducts energy audits, air sealing and whole home retrofits under/in compliance with the NJ Home Performance & Energy Star Program. Xavier is also a teacher with over 1000 hours in classroom and field sessions, bringing real-world and hands on scenarios to enthusiastic students looking to change, or enhance, their career with the addition of ‘Home Performance and Energy Management’ knowledge.

The Rev. Jeff Allen

Meet Rev. Jeff Allen

BIO - Jeffrey S. Allen is a United Methodist pastor currently appointed to the West Virginia Council of Churches as the Executive Director. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from West Virginia University and a Master of Divinity degree from Emory University. He previously served as Project Director for the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, as the Community and Families Development Director at Community Development Outreach Ministries (CDOM) for thirteen years, and has also served as pastor at the Keystone and Northfork United Methodist Churches in McDowell County, West Virginia, and the College Hill United Methodist Church in Waco, Kentucky. He is married to Laura Harbert. They have a golden retriever named Miles and four cats: Dora, Little Cat, Samantha, and Thomas.

Ben Gilmer

Meet Ben Gilmer

BIO - Ben Gilmer is president of Refresh Appalachia, a social enterprise of Coalfield Development. Ben has over 15 years of experience in the non-profit, government, academic, and private sectors. Born and raised in a coal mining family in Russell County, Virginia, his specialties include agriculture and food systems, economic and community development, and sustainable natural resource management. He has worked on projects in the U.S., Latin America, Asia-Pacific, and the Caribbean. Ben has a Masters degree from West Virginia University and a Bachelors degree from Radford University. When not working at Refresh Appalachia, Ben enjoys exploring the hills and hollows with his family, playing music, and writing.

Nathan Hall

Meet Nathan Hall

BIO - Nathan Hall is the president of Reclaim Appalachia, an enterprise within the Coalfield Development family. Reclaim is focused on developing sustainable projects on mining impacted lands in southern WV that create jobs, restore ecological health, and generate profitable returns. Originally from a small town near Prestonsburg in Eastern Kentucky, he has spent the past six years working on various forms of agricultural and forestry projects on surface mined lands throughout Appalachia. He holds a BA from Berea college and a Master of Environmental Management/MBA from Yale University.

Gabe Peña

Meet Gabe Peña

BIO - Gabriel Peña is the Deputy Resource Coordinator for the Fayette County Commission. A Texas native, Gabe has been living in Fayetteville for 10 years. As a representative of the Commission he works on downtown revitalization, local foods development, and tourism development. Gabe also volunteers his time serving on the board of New River Health Association, a Federally Qualified Health Center serving Raleigh, Fayette, and Nicholas counties.

Bryan Shaw

Meet Bryan Shaw

BIO - Bryan is a lifelong West Virginia native, a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach and certified GrowthWheel advisor, with 15+ years of experience with Fortune 500 companies in product development, marketing, and B2B Sales. In 2014 he launched his first consulting company, Bryan Shaw & Associates prior to expanding and launching Scaleable Ventures, Inc. and Co-Founding the marketing platform TWO CENTS and SocialFunnel. Past experiences have brought him opportunities to partner in entrepreneurial initiatives with Marshall University, the WV Department of Education, Robert C. Byrd Institute, Advantage Valley and the WV Small Business Development Center to provide business coaching to those looking to start a new business or expand their established business. He most recently developed and launched WV’s first Global Accelerator Network member business accelerator, TEN50, through the Robert C. Byrd Institute.

Lauren Kemp

Meet Lauren Kemp

BIO - Lauren Kemp serves as the Director of Local Food Business programs at Unlimited Future in Huntington, WV. Lauren created her own career path by leveraging her skills and interest in developing a local food system. Lauren has developed resources and programs that have enhanced the business knowledge and leveraged financial investment and technical assistance for farm and food entrepreneurs in the Huntington area. Lauren began her engagement with the start-up of the Wild Ramp, a local food market that hybridizes the Farmers’ Market and retail food shopping experiences in order to facilitate access to markets for farmers and food entrepreneurs. The Wild Ramp opened in July 2012 and since has returned more than $1.3 million to local producers. Lauren was part of the founding community group and still serves on the Board of Directors, currently as the Vice President. Lauren’s story of social entrepreneurship extends back to her time as a student at Marshall University working to promote campus sustainability and successfully establishing a student fee to support recycling and energy efficiency programs. Lauren earned a Bachelors’ Degree in Sociology in 2012 and is currently working on a Masters’ Degree in Public Administration at Marshall University. In her free time, Lauren enjoys making crafts and working on her small farm with a flock of chickens and fledging vegetable garden.

Earl Gohl

Meet Earl F. Gohl

BIO - Earl F. Gohl was confirmed as the eleventh federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) by the U.S. Senate in March 2010. As federal co-chair, Gohl oversees hundreds of ARC investments in community-based projects contributing to the economic growth of the Region. Gohl has an extensive background in public policy and community-based economic development. Before coming to ARC, he served as the director of government relations/deputy director for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration from 2001 to 2009, where he developed community-based solutions to a range of public policy challenges. From 1996 to 2001, Gohl served as a special assistant and then as an associate assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor, developing and implementing a broad legislative agenda. He also has 20 years of experience in Pennsylvania state and local government, both as an appointed and as an elected official, including serving as the executive assistant to the mayor of Harrisburg; elected member of the Harrisburg City Council; deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community Affairs; and director of the Pennsylvania governor's Washington office. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Gohl stated that his objective as ARC federal co-chair would be to ensure that each federal dollar expended by the Commission was "an investment in the economic future of Appalachian families that will generate a return for American taxpayers." Gohl holds a bachelor of arts degree from Rider College (now Rider University) in New Jersey and a master of public administration degree from Pennsylvania State University.

Stephen Roberts

Meet Steve Roberts

BIO - Stephen G. Roberts is president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, a statewide organization that seeks greater prosperity and a higher standard-of-living for West Virginians. The Chamber is the voice of business throughout the state and is West Virginia’s largest association of employers whose members employ more than half of our state’s workers. A West Virginia native and graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, he previously worked for the Huntington, WV Regional Chamber of Commerce and BASF Corporation. He has taught in the Community College of Marshall University and is active in several civic and business organizations. Among other community activities, Steve is the President of Leadership West Virginia and Chairman of the Board of Jobs for West Virginia Graduates. Additionally, Steve chairs the Board of the Craik-Patton House Museum and serves on the Board of Huntington’s Woodland’s Retirement Community, the Foster Foundation and the Slater Charitable Trust. He resides in Charleston with his wife and three daughters.

Brenda Huffman

Meet Brenda Huffman

BIO - Brenda Huffman was born and raised in Braxton County and graduated from Braxton County High School. She began her professional career at the Central Regional Jail, 1993 and worked there for 10 years as a Correctional Officer. Brenda has also worked as a City Police Officer and supervisor in a juvenile detention center. She served as an instructor at the Division of Corrections, Corrections Academy from 2009 to 2014. She became a Master Instructor for Defensive Tactics and also Mechanical Restraints, before joining Parole Services as the statewide employment coordinator. She has a wealth of experience in corrections and enjoys training others and seeing folks change their lives. Brenda is the mother of two grown children, her son is an insurance agent and her daughter is a WV State Trooper. She enjoys reading, gardening, biking, hiking, fishing, and spending time with friends.

Priya Baskaran

Meet Priya Baskaran

BIO - Priya Baskaran is Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Law Clinic (EILC). The EILC provides free legal services on corporate and intellectual property matters to West Virginia based nonprofits, businesses, and individual entrepreneurs. Baskaran's scholarship and research focuses on the nexus between social justice and transactional legal work. Baskaran is also a community economic development attorney and previously represented nonprofits, social enterprises, entrepreneurs, community organizations, and cooperative businesses in Detroit and Washington D.C. Baskaran came to WVU from the Social Enterprise & Nonprofit Law Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center where she was a Visiting Professor and Supervising Attorney.  Baskaran has also worked on international land use issues as a research fellow for the East West Management Institute. Her work focused on cooperative land ownership and environmental and land use issues in Cambodia.

Reggie Jones

Meet Reggie Jones

BIO - Reggie Jones serves as the current Chief Executive Office of the Kanawha Institute for Social Research & Action (KISRA). For the past 25 years Mr. Jones has worked in the field of social services and economic development striving to empower lives, strengthen communities and affect change through the development of impactful programming. Mr. Jones has vast experience in program development and implementation while working with the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in the state. His experience in administering federal grants has positioned him well to lead KISRA’s numerous initiatives and services focusing on Health, Employment, Asset Development and Learning. His dedication to public service is widely known and Mr. Jones is a highly respected member of the non-profit community. He holds an MSW degree from West Virginia University and a theology degree from Abundant Life Bible College. He is an ordained elder and serves on the ministerial staff of Abundant Life Ministries in Charleston, WV. His dual passions of serving God and serving people converge to form the basis of his lifelong work of helping WV families and communities reach their greatest potential.

Kevin O’Connor

Meet Kevin O'Connor

BIO - Kevin O’Connor joined Natural Capital Investment Fund in April 2015 in the role of West Virginia Business Lender. He brings over 20 years of bank management and lending experience, and is passionate about working with small business owners.  He has assisted companies in both West Virginia and Alaska in various industries, including tourism, retail, logging, agriculture, and professional services. Through his support of family-owned businesses, Kevin has also developed a keen understanding of what’s required to successfully operate a farm, a home cottage, and an e-commerce site. In addition to his finance background, Kevin brings 5 years of public accounting knowledge to NCIF. He has helped numerous entrepreneurs prepare and analyze financial statements, set-up Quick Books, conduct audits, and file tax returns. Kevin currently sits on the boards of the United Way of Marion County and Habitat for Humanity of Marion County. He received degrees in accounting, finance and business administration from the University of Maryland University College and Eastern Washington University.

Justin White

Meet Justin White

BIO - Justin White joined Natural Capital Investment Fund in February 2017 as a West Virginia lender. He works with small businesses and entrepreneurs to provide financing opportunities that supports triple-bottom impacts in communities across the state. Before joining NCIF, Justin worked as a commercial lender for a large financial institution. He has experience lending to a range of industries including tourism, hospitality, manufacturing and professional services. His passion for the outdoors and conservation led him to move outside of private banking and join the NCIF team to pursue the mission of both economic and environmental vitality in his home state. He received a B.S. in business administration from West Virginia University.

Brandon Dennison

Meet Brandon Dennison

BIO - Brandon Dennison, born and raised in West Virginia, is the founder and current Chief Executive Officer of the Coalfield Development Corporation. Coalfield Development has incubated five social enterprises and professionally trained over 300 unemployed people, many of them laid-off coalminers. Dennison holds a Master of Public Affairs in Nonprofit Management from Indiana University. Social enterprise is his passion, as evidenced by his holding a certificate in Social Enterprise from the Indiana University Kelly School of Business. Dennison is a 2015 winner of the J.M. Kaplan Social Innovation Prize and the 2014 Diehl Family Social Enterprise Competition. He was recognized in 2016 by the Chronicle on Philanthropy's "40 under 40" leaders nationwide who are making their mark on the nonprofit world.

Leasha Johnson

Meet Leasha Johnson

BIO - Leasha Johnson is the Executive Director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, a quasi-governmental agency established to promote the economic and civic welfare of Mingo County, West Virginia. A 1988 graduate of the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics, Leasha spent several years working in both the banking and coal mining industries before developing an interest in community and economic development. In early 2004, a career move led her to the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, and she’s now a recognized leader in economic development, as well as a successful collaborator of public/private partnerships which have facilitated substantial diversification opportunities in southern West Virginia. Leasha was born and raised in Mingo County, and her commitment to making smart economic growth a priority there is evidenced by her many civic and community engagements. She is board member for both the Hatfield-McCoy Recreational Trails Authority and the Corridor G Regional Development Authority. She serves as the vice chair of the Williamson Health & Wellness Center board of directors. She’s a member of the WV Economic Development Council and the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce. She’s an advisory board member to Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College’s Appalachian Leadership Academy. She serves in several advisory capacities for the Mingo County Board of Education, and she’s also a member of Congressman Evan Jenkins’ Small Business Advisory Committee. She and her husband, Ronnie, reside in Williamson, West Virginia, and they have one daughter, Kristyn, who’s completing her senior year at West Virginia University.


Meet Barbara Wyckoff

BIO - Barbara has over 35 years of experience promoting community economic development in both the U.S. and overseas.  Barbara provides coaching to social entrepreneurs to frame and hold the creative space where reflection, learning, discovery, strategic focusing, sequenced priorities, and action steps can happen. She  focusses on the human capacity needed to lead regenerative businesses, as well as on organizational issues balancing non-profit and for-profit goals, designing business models and marketing/value propositions, building and managing value chains, measuring impact, investment opportunities, and making the pitch for investment, among others.  Barbara is an experienced facilitator and trainer, having developed curriculum and delivered numerous training programs for on-the ground practitioners.  She has been an active member of the WealthWorks Collaborative since 2007.  She received her MA in from American University in Washington, DC. She is a certified Co-Active Coach and a Leadership Circle 360 Coach.  She lives with her husband and dogs in the Maryland woods.

"Cautionary Tales and Successes in Starting and Operating a Social Enterprise"

Social enterprises face many challenges in common with other businesses, but also have some unique challenges and opportunities, given their social mission.  This session will look at some of these practicalities and lessons learned through real life stories and examples.  The purpose of this interactive session is to apply learning from social enterprises around key concepts, strengthening start-up and existing enterprises.

Bob Pirner

Meet Bob Pirner

BIO - Bob Pirner, a Navy veteran, has spent 28 years in West Virginia working to help people with disabilities find independence.  First, he was the Development Officer at SteppingStones and worked to develop recreational programming including a state of the art facility.    In June, 2009 after recovering from cancer, he joined PACE Enterprises as Director of Development.  He is a co-founder of Operation Welcome Home and Miracle Baseball.  He has served as the Executive Director of the West Virginia Association for Disability Employment since 2014.  Originally from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Bob is one of 6000 living fluent speakers of the Sioux language.

"Creating Jobs for People with Disabilities"

A network of social enterprises is working in the Mountain State to find and create good jobs.  West Virginia has several nonprofit organizations scattered across the state called Community Rehabilitation Programs most of which have jobs for people with disability as their mission.  Sometimes these agencies work to place people with disabilities with community employers and other times they create lines of business to create customized jobs for people with disabilities.  A quick assessment shows that these agencies have created over 3,000 jobs in West Virginia.  They shred documents in Morgantown, they package wiping cloths in Ravenswood, they grow vegetables in Reedsville, they  clean and landscape buildings all over the state, and do it well.  This session is an overview of how they create jobs.