Ruben Gaona was born in El Paso, Texas and moved to Milwaukee's Southside
at the age of 15. In 2017 Ruben completed 7 years of a 10-year sentence, and in 2019 he founded 2nd Chance Wisconsin and began providing guidance (through motivational speaking) to formerly incarcerated people and others facing barriers. Ruben is a U. S. Navy Veteran, former employee for the Department of Defense (NAVY) and an ex-felon. Ruben is currently a Senior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. Ruben's experience working in re-entry with the State of Wisconsin inspired him to co-found The Way Out, where he is currently the COO. Ruben has had the privilege of speaking at several re-entry engagements throughout Wisconsin to discuss the merits of second chance employment. Ruben is also an active advocate of the Ban the Box movement in the United States and has actively advocated on behalf of Expungement Bill SB78.
Karen Coy Romano
Growing up in extreme poverty in the Black community, Karen had a front-row seat to systemic racism, experienced homelessness, food insecurity, and the impact of drug trafficking and incarceration. Karen was an activist in the 1960's civil rights movement. She has devoted her life as an ally and activist for racial equity and access, open housing, reducing barriers to employment, ending mass incarceration, and stopping police overreach and misconduct. For over 50 years, Karen has served as a nonprofit leader and entrepreneur launching and expanding nonprofit organizations and social justice programs serving marginalized and disenfranchised individuals. In the mid-1970s, in partnership with the DOC, Karen launched Milwaukee’s first pre-release center for women from Taycheedah correctional institution. Karen is an internationally certified multi-million dollar fundraising and communications executive, president of the nonprofit consulting practice, SOLUTIONS UNLIMITED leadership & transformational change management, and Founder and former Co-Chair of the Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform, a prior collaborative of over 30 leaders of organizations working to end mass incarceration through common-sense solutions to reduce prison admission, end crimeless revocations, and support and expand programs for successful community reintegration. Karen continues her life’s work in serving justice-impacted individuals and organizations.
John is a Milwaukee Area Commercial Banker for Johnson Financial Group with over 13 years of experience helping to connect people and resources. He grew up in New Berlin, WI, and did his Undergraduate at Marquette University, and eventually his MBA at Louisiana State University. However, his true passion lies in using his platform to help make the community better. Whether that is connecting a business to a consultant, or an organization to our company's internal resources to explore funding avenues; He truly tries to connect the people he believes into the avenues that he thinks could help. When he finds something or someone, he is passionate about, his connectivity is theirs, and he hopes that it all leads to shared success. He believes Milwaukee has so many great things going on. He is trying to showcase those things with his career as well as his non-profit organizational work. John believes we have such an opportunity to grow our city and connect our residents.
Avelina Poppert works for Waukesha State Bank and currently serves as Vice President – Commercial Banking Officer, with nearly 15 years of financial experience. She has extensive experience in multiple aspects of commercial banking and loan processes, specializing in SBA 7(a) and USDA business and industry financing programs. She enjoys working with small businesses, to provide guidance through their entrepreneurship journey. Avelina actively works in the community she serves. She is currently on the advisory committees for Teens Grow Greens, META House and serves as the current vice chair of the community involvement committee, though EWL – Tempo Milwaukee.
Nyra Jordan has been with American Family Insurance for over 20 years serving in various leadership roles throughout the organization. Nyra is a social impact investment director at the American Family Institute for Corporate and Social Impact where she is advancing the creation of economic opportunities for historically overlooked communities including those impacted by incarceration. Nyra holds an undergraduate degree in mass communication from UW-Madison and a master’s in criminal justice administration from Valdosta State University. She also has a master’s in social innovation and sustainability leadership from Edgewood College. Nyra’s goal is to utilize venture capital investment as a vehicle to drive social change while leveraging the thought leadership of innovative community partners.
Patrick Snyder has tremendous experience running social and for-profit ventures. His largest wins are in the area of organizational GROWTH. At the age of 27 Patrick started, grew, and sold Shoreline Magazine. The publication went from having two to 20 employees in roughly three years with Patrick as Founder and CEO. As Executive Director, He transformed The Illinois Travel and Tourism Association, Visit Illinois, from a 30-member club into a federation of Illinois Tourism Associations with a membership in the 100s-of- thousands while increasing the budget by a factor of 6! Patrick served as Executive Director of the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship for 5 years, where he grew reserves from 28K to over 500K during that time! Most recently, Patrick was named Executive Director at BizStarts Milwaukee. BizStarts supports Entrepreneurship in underserved communities and provides education, training, one-on-one coaching, and connections to resources. All services are free of charge.
Francesca Mayca Wegner (she/her/ella) is HPGM’s newest Executive Director. She joined HPGM in April 2021 after serving as senior director of development and communications for Sojourner Family Peace Center. Prior to Sojourner, Francesca served in various roles in Marquette University’s advancement department after starting her career in sales with the Milwaukee Bucks. She brings extensive experience building and sustaining strategic relationships with various stakeholders on behalf of nonprofits, higher education, and corporate organizations. Throughout her career, she has championed the intentional creation of spaces where others can bring their whole selves to their work and feel valued.
As an extension of her work at HPGM as an advocate and connector, Francesca serves on the MATC President’s Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as well as the Marquette University Hispanic-Serving Institution Advisory Committee. Francesca is passionate about investing in the Greater Milwaukee community with organizations focused on mentoring, equitable access to education, and animal welfare.
Peter has over a decade of public affairs leadership experience in health care, education, entrepreneurship, and non-profit management. His expertise includes strategic planning, organizational growth, non-dues revenue, and partnership development. As the COO of The Welch Group, Peter lobbies consults on organizational strategy, and oversees operations and business development. Previously, he served as the COO at the state Medical Society, overseeing all aspects of advocacy, membership, and communications. Peter holds a BA from Lawrence University and a MA from Arizona State University. When he isn't thinking about strategy and politics, Peter enjoys fly fishing, gardening, and running.