UWM alums recognized with ‘40 Under 40’ honors

Diapers. Knives. Finance. Real estate development. Government relations. Homeless and endangered youth.

Those are a few of the areas of accomplishment for UWM alumni who were chosen for the Milwaukee Business Journal’s annual “40 Under 40” awards, which honors Milwaukee’s brightest young leaders and professionals. The awards will be presented at an event March 18.

Here are the UWM graduates who will be honored:

Nathan Zimmerman (2013 BA Theatre Studies)

Nathan Zimmerman is the founder and owner of ZimKnives, a business that focuses on making prestige precision knives, swords and other metal tools and implements.

His knives were recently the focus of an entire episode of Wisconsin Foodie. Host Luke Zahm traveled from Zimmerman’s shop/forge on North Avenue to Zahm’s farm in the Viroqua area to do some cooking and show the knives in action. “That was a fun experience,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman started as a mechanical engineering student at UWM, intending to follow in the footsteps of his father, Daniel, a computer and electrical engineer. However, he found that he preferred a major where he could do more hands-on work. “All that theory and math didn’t fit my style of learning.”

Nathan Zimmerman works on a knife. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Zimmerman)

That’s what led him to UWM’s theatre studies program, where he learned the backstage skills needed to support a production.

“My education was a well-rounded experience. It helped me learn the craft and the financial side of being an artist.”

When he was looking for a job during his first year, he saw an ad for a knife sharpener. That fit with his interests in cooking and crafting. “My mom (Carol Ann) is Italian, and I grew up eating delicious food all the time. So, I grew up in her kitchen and my dad’s shop.”

He’d already started collecting knives, and soon found himself making some for camping with simple tools he borrowed from his dad. When friends began to ask him to make knives, he started to expand his tools as he earned money.

“I got the idea I could make a business out of that, and here we are.”

Now he operates out of a former auto repair building that he is remodeling into a shop and store.

Chefs like Yia Vang, a Minneapolis-based Hmong chef who competed on “Iron Chef,” have ordered his knives. They’re also in the Milwaukee kitchen of award-winning restaurants like Birch and Sanford.

Zimmerman himself enjoys cooking. “Having good knives just really makes you want to cook.”

In addition to making knives, he also does some carpentry, making gaming tables for Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons for friends who run a gaming store. When he needs a break from the 2,000-degree forge, he often heads upstairs to play some games.

He’s also still active in theater and is a member of the Stagehands Union.

“I learned a lot at UWM – playwriting, stage management, carpentry, scenery and lighting design, jewelry and metal working. I give credit to the professors and teachers who taught me some really valuable skills.”

Meagan Johnson (’09 BFA Art Education)

Meagan Johnson is the founder and executive director of Milwaukee Diaper Mission. As a young mother, Johnson’s own environmental awareness had led to her using and promoting cloth diapers for her two boys. In researching the issues, she discovered one in three (it’s now one in two) families struggled to afford diapers of any kind. Milwaukee, unlike other cities, didn’t have a diaper bank to fill this need. So, in 2020 Johnson founded Milwaukee Diaper Mission, initially based in her garage.

Meagan Johnson

It’s now grown to an organization that’s distributed more 1.5 million diapers and has a budget of $776,000, three employees and hundreds of volunteers. Early on, Milwaukee Diaper Mission expanded to add period supplies, another expensive and essential item for families. The items are distributed through a network of community organizations, including the UWM Food Pantry. The effort is funded by donations of supplies and money to buy products wholesale, and a hardworking board of directors guides the efforts. Milwaukee Bucks basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo is a prominent supporter, and his fiancé Mariah Riddlesprigger serves on the board.

Although her degree from UWM doesn’t exactly align with what she’s doing now, Johnson said the skills she learned studying to be an art teacher are valuable. “I think my teaching degree taught me to step up and lead.” At UWM, she also worked as a B.O.S.S. (Be On the Safe Side) driver and supervisor, giving her experience in organizing her time and supervising people, Johnson added.

“Four years ago, I didn’t know I’d be doing this, but it brings joy to so many lives. I’m so grateful to be able to do it.”

Hassan Akhtar (’08 BBA Marketing, ’09 Post Baccalaureate Finance)

He earned a BBA with a major in Marketing in ’08 and Post Baccalaureate Finance Major in ’09.

Hassan Akhtar is executive director and private banker at J.P. Morgan Private Bank.

“I develop customized wealth management plans and deliver J.P. Morgan Private Bank’s exclusive platform, tailored to the individual needs of clients and their families,” he said. This includes strategies around wealth and estate planning, lending, investment strategy and banking/liquidity management.

Hassan Akhtar

When he did the photo shoot for the award, Akhtar said he was proud to hold up a UWM pennant because UWM was instrumental in shaping his career.

“Coming from an immigrant background and being in Milwaukee, UWM was my school of choice for academics and affordability.”

He started his work journey during his sophomore year when he got a position at Robert W. Baird. Being able to work during the day and attend classes at night made his professional career possible, he said. “UWM helped me network and make connections that grew into lifelong relationships. I try to give back to UWM and Lubar as much as I can.”

He got J.P. Morgan Private Bank involved in the Lubar 25 program that recognizes outstanding undergraduates and contributes every year. He’s also active in recruiting students from the Investment Management Certificate Program.

David Binder (‘09 BBA Marketing)

David Binder is senior vice president at MLG Capital, a real estate investment firm.

He appreciated his time at UWM.

“The offerings of the business school in Milwaukee, with everything going on in this city, was great… Just meeting folks and having the opportunity to talk to individuals.”

David Binder

He had looked at other business schools, but ultimately chose UWM because of that flexibility, he said.

“I was a working student. I was taking 16 credit hours and working full time as well.” Having night programming helped him balance his obligations, Binder said. “I even took a class or two online,” he recalled, which at that time wasn’t as common as it’s become.

“I could have the true college experience, while having a schedule that allowed me to pay for an apartment, a car and all the other things I needed to.”

Before he graduated in 2009, he was involved in the mortgage business, focusing on single family homes to four-family apartment units.

After graduation, he went into the securities side of finance, an area that he enjoyed, but he eventually decided that he wanted to focus on relationships and real estate investment. “I could have more control over the day-to-day investments of the real estate world,” he said, “rather than dealing with the volatility of markets, which are driven by millions of things.”

His focus at MLG Capital, which he joined in 2013, is on fundraising, marketing, operations and technology. He sits on the MLG Operations, MLG Cares, Making a Difference and other committees focused on doing good in the community and continual improvements to the organization.

Among his passions is mentoring young people, especially if they have interest in the real estate world, and he and his wife are supporters of numerous youth, education and health-related causes across Milwaukee.

One of the charitable organizations MLG supports is Make-A-Wish Wisconsin, which serves children with critical illnesses, and Binder helps with those efforts. Last year, for example, the company helped Make-A-Wish grant a young boy’s wish for pontoon boat, celebrating with a fun event in the company parking lot.

His upbringing encouraged such charitable activities, Binder said.

“Time is limited, and if I can spend some of that time giving back when someone asks me, I’m happy to do so.”

Alec Knutson (’12 BA History, Political Science & Pre-Law)

Like many students starting their first year of college, Alec Knutson had no idea what he wanted to do.  His academic performance in high school and early college was, he said, “non-stellar.”

“You feel bad because you’re not excelling and you don’t know what you want to do that first day you step on campus.”

Knutson had chosen UWM because it offered a variety of majors, but he soon found multiple opportunities beyond academics.

Alec Knutson

“What was great about UWM and what I love and am so thankful for is all the opportunities that started to present themselves. UWM was super impactful on my career and growth as an individual and as a professional.”

After becoming involved in the legal clinic, he decided to focus on majors in political science and history. “I had these amazing professors, and I really became invigorated in my studies. I decided I wanted to go to law school.”

As he became more passionate about his studies and decided he wanted to be able to make an impact on his community, his grades improved. He served as both president of the history and political science honor societies and became office manager of the Legal Clinic.

As he became involved with these majors and student organizations, his confidence in his academic skills and leadership abilities grew. After earning bachelor’s degrees in history and political science and a certificate in peace studies and conflict resolution from UWM, he went on to earn a law degree from Mitchell Hamline School of Law and a master’s in public administration from Hamline University.

After a series of jobs in government and politics, Knutson joined Milwaukee County as director of government relations, “working on behalf of the community and advocating for resources.”

He calls it his dream job, and said it wouldn’t have happened without UWM.

“I’m just very thankful for that experience I had at UWM. At another school maybe I wouldn’t have had those opportunities to get involved and supportive professors who really cared about student performance. I’m just so grateful for that experience at UWM.”

Aaron Matter (’09 BBA Finance with Real Estate Certificate)

 Aaron Matter is managing director and founder of Matter Development, a real estate development company that focuses on senior housing.

He credits UWM with helping him get started in the business. When he graduated in the midst of an economic downturn, finding work in the real estate market was challenging. “There was just nothing.”

Aaron Matter

Jeff Rymaszewski, then director of UWM’s Real Estate program, connected him with his first job in real estate. “He found a pathway for me to get an internship at a real estate development company. The person he connected me with, Jim Tarantino, who sadly just passed away, was an important professional mentor to me. Those connections I made as a result of going to UWM made me what I am today.”

As a nontraditional student, commuting and working while attending UWM, Matter found himself in good company with many other students who were doing the same. “That taught me time management skills and a work ethic,” he said.

Matter said he valued the perspective of his professors who had real world professional experience. Even today, 16 years later, he still quotes some of them to his younger employees.

Matter started his studies in architecture at the University of Minnesota before transferring to UWM. He chose UWM partly because it was convenient, but also because all of his credits transferred “fairly painlessly.”

While the architecture background provided building expertise that is helpful to him, Matter found that the business/real estate degree better fit what he wanted to do.

“I wanted more balance between the creative and logical side of my brain. I can still be creative in designing and building, but the real estate finance gives me the logical side.”

His father, Randy, is also a UWM graduate, earning his master’s degree in the Executive MBA program. Actually, the two of them graduated at the same time, celebrating commencement at the same ceremony.

DeShanda Williams-Clark (’11 BS Social Work)

DeShanda Williams-Clark is senior vice president of programs & services at Pathfinders, an agency that serves young people who are homeless and/or who are at high risk of sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking.

DeShanda Williams-Clark

She is an experienced social work professional who draws from her experiences with Walker’s Point Youth Shelter, Division of Milwaukee Child Protective Services and Nia Imani Family. In her position at Pathfinders, she oversees all program operations. She has received recognition for her service by the Wisconsin Association of Child & Youth Care Professionals, Shepherd Express and Mental Health Task Force, and is a Cream City Foundation Emerging Leader. She continues to advance efforts in support of youth experiencing housing instability by serving on the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

She chose to transition to UWM from UW-Madison to finish her bachelor’s degree. “Once I was accepted into the Social Welfare program, I was also at the phase of field placement. Katie Magnan was my field supervisor and felt I would be a great fit to serve at Pathfinders as their first undergraduate intern in the Drop-In Center.”

This experience jump started her career with Pathfinders, she said. She transitioned from intern to AmeriCorps member and other program, direct service and leadership roles within the agency.

“My experience at UWM has also positioned me to offer supervision for other field placement students at Pathfinders, and encourage a pathway to full-time employment.”

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