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Atlanta's 25 Most Influential People

By The Editors | October 21, 2020 | People

In a year of change, we honor the local luminaries leading the charge in our community, with ripple effects felt throughout the world. These formidable forces drive change, pushing Atlanta forward on a local, national and international stage for the greater good.

1 | JOHN LEWIS

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With his passing this summer, Representative John Lewis leaves behind a legacy matched by few alive today. While the Civil Rights leader’s contributions to this country are great in number, his status as one of Atlanta’s most beloved citizens is what we here will remember most. An Atlanta resident since age 23, Lewis served 17 terms in the House of Representatives, always encouraging those in his district—and across the world—to get in “good trouble, necessary trouble,” with a quest for protecting humanity always at the forefront. With a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a funeral attended by three living presidents, Lewis can rest in peace knowing his legacy has impacted Atlanta and beyond. To see even more of his impact, check out the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” (johnlewisgoodtrouble.com), now available.

2 | ED BASTIAN

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As CEO of Delta Airlines, Ed Bastian has had to step up in the last few months to navigate such an uncertain time. The company’s diligence has paid off; it has been rated the best airline to fly during the pandemic by The Points Guy for its strict protocol and excellent customer service, including blocking off middle seats until January 2021. Atlantans have always been proud to call Delta their hometown airline, but never more than now.

What do you see in Delta’s future?

In the short term, Delta has become a healthier and more resilient airline that provides the same standard of safety for health as we do for flight safety. As we look past the COVID-19 era, I’m extremely optimistic about the future of Delta as a global airline. Our experiences in 2020 have enabled us to accelerate some much-needed projects including airport expansions and updating our fleet, which will help position us for growth when demand returns. Our mission to connect the world has never been more important, and we’ll be applying the many lessons we’re learning today to better serve our customers in the decades ahead.

How has the relationship between Atlanta and Delta been so successful?

The relationship between Delta and Atlanta is one of the great examples of a true public-private partnership, serving the community alongside our customers and employees for decades. It works because it has always been built on trust, and the understanding that we can accomplish far more together than we can separately. We are all thankful for the vision of those leaders from Delta and the city of Atlanta who sat down nearly 80 years ago and agreed that aviation was the key to the region’s future. That spirit lives on today.

3 | SARA BLAKELY

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Sara Blakely’s Spanx celebrates a whopping 20 years in business in 2020, headquartered in Atlanta since its inception. (Spanx’s popularity soared when Oprah featured it in her “Oprah’s Favorite Things” that year as well.) Twenty years and countless products later, Blakely is known just as much for her giving as she is for her innovations. The Spanx by Sara Blakely Foundation (spanxfoundation.com) has given over $25 million to worthy causes, including $5 million this year to support female-founded and female-run businesses during the pandemic.

4 | DAVID CUMMINGS

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David Cummings has a long history of championing technology in Atlanta, as both the founder of Atlanta Tech Village and as an entrepreneur who helped found 10 significant tech companies (collective value: $1 billion—yes, billion!), such as Terminus and SalesLoft. Atlanta Tech Village is one of the nation’s largest tech hubs, home to over 200 nascent companies. Atlanta Tech Village aims to not only create community among entrepreneurs, but to also collectively create 10,000 jobs in the industry in the city.

5 | KILLER MIKE

I’m duty bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization.

—Activist, rapper, songwriter and actor Killer Mike, on May 29 in Atlanta

6 | ROSALIND BREWER

When you’re a Black woman, you get mistaken a lot. You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have the top job. Sometimes you’re mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people assume you’re in the wrong place. And all I can think in the back of my head is, ‘No, you’re in the wrong place.’ The wrong place—that ‘sunken place’—is everywhere, deep inside our culture. If there’s a place where bias doesn’t exist, I haven’t found it.

—Rosalind Brewer, COO, Starbucks, during a 2018 commencement speech at Spelman College

7 | MARK TORO

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Mark Toro, chairman of the board, Atlanta, North American Properties, has referred to Atlanta as “the poster child for urban sprawl for the last 40 years,” and as those of us who live here know, he’s very much right. He and North American Properties are also at the forefront of making living in pockets of Atlanta an experience—the company has even trademarked the phrase ExperienceMakers. Since 1996, Toro and his team have developed $3.1 billion and 9.4 million square feet. Anyone who lives in Alpharetta near North American Properties-developed Avalon can attest to the change in lifestyle, and the impact the development has had beyond its physical borders on the surrounding community. Toro also led the 2010 turnaround of Atlantic Station, and is currently working on the long-awaited redevelopment of Colony Square.

8 | TYLER PERRY

For over 15 years actor, media giant and studio mogul Tyler Perry has supported communities through his The Perry Foundation. Organizations benefiting range from Center for Puppetry Arts to Covenant House GA here in his home base of Atlanta, as well as across the country. In 2020, the foundation partnered with CORE, Community Organized Relief Effort (Sean Penn’s organization), to bring free COVID-19 tests into Atlanta. Perry himself is also known to give generously and at random throughout Atlanta; recently, he gave 42 out-of-work Houston’s employees $21,000 and picked up the tab at 44 Atlanta-area Krogers during senior and at-risk shopping hours. (He also did the same at 29 Winn-Dixies in his hometown of New Orleans.) Whether outright or on the sly—the Kroger receipts were signed “Atlanta Angel,” but people quickly caught on, and Kroger ended up matching his donation—Perry is a force for good in Atlanta.

9 | TOPE AWOTONA

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Where we once used to say “have your people call my people,” it’s now “please book via my Calendly link.” It’s used by more than 10 million people a month around the globe, including the majority of Fortune 500 companies, as well as nearly all 1,000 companies in SaaS 1000. CEO and founder of Calendly Tope Awotona—a Wheeler High School and University of Georgia graduate—checks in.

Why did you choose to base Calendly in Atlanta?

I grew up in Nigeria and moved to Atlanta in 1996 at the age of 15 with my family. My family chose Atlanta for the same simple reason most immigrants choose their new city in the States—Atlanta is where we had family. I feel very lucky that Atlanta is where we ended up. After college, I stayed because Atlanta had everything I needed—family, great friends, incredible growth, affordable living and easy access to the world through Hartsfield.

Fast-forward to September 2013 when I officially launched Calendly after a series of jobs that left me unfilled. I knew I needed to accelerate the growth of the company by tapping into their collective wisdom of other like-minded entrepreneurs. I instantly fell in love with the Atlanta Tech Village. A tweet caught the eye of an investor at Atlanta Ventures, which gave me a boost to take Calendly to the next phase and made us officially part of the Atlanta tech scene.

Today I’m still an active member of the Atlanta community and I’m especially passionate about helping the next generation succeed. I mentor with Tech Stars Atlanta and have mentored close to two dozen young entrepreneurs to help them with their business ideas, support their goals and offer advice to help make their business a reality.

How has Calendly changed or accelerated in 2020?

With remote collaboration at an all-time high, Calendly has seen explosive growth as businesses and consumers try to adjust to this new norm and keep both business and personal life straight. In the past year, Calendly has reached new milestones including doubling revenue and headcount, while continuing to grow by bringing on new customers like VMware, Teach for America and Best Buy.

What does the future hold for the company?

Calendly will continue to focus on accelerating growth and finding new industries and markets we can serve. I am also personally focused on investing in Calendly’s corporate culture, with a focus on programs that promote diversity. In June, Calendly was proud to donate a total of $100,000 to Black Girls CODE and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance as part of the Obama Foundation. We have also been named as a Best Place to Work in 2018 and 2019 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

10 | SANJAY GUPTA

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Atlanta’s own Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN; associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital; and associate professor of neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine, has been on your television or smartphone screen a lot lately, reporting from the frontlines of the pandemic.

How has your job been made easier by being in Atlanta?

I have Emory University hospital where I work here; I can get logistically from place to place fairly easily. It’s a big medical town. The American Cancer Society is here; the CDC is here. There’s just a lot of medical resources in this town. It’s easy to navigate and to find great sources for stories, and to be able to use CNN’s resources.

Where do you see Atlanta from a personal and professional standpoint in the next couple of years?

It’s continuing to grow pretty significantly. This most recent pandemic has really highlighted the need for organizations like the CDC, but Emory was also the first hospital in the country to take care of patients with Ebola six years ago. That really increased the capacity for the hospital to take care of infectious disease patients and put us in a pretty good position to be able to handle these outbreaks, and I think that’s going to continue to grow. The medical technology growth in Atlanta is pretty significant. Organizations like Sharecare, for example, are growing—that’s the same people that started WebMD—and you have a lot of medical entrepreneurship happening here as well.

What are you most proud of in 2020?

I think that journalism has never been more important than it is now. We’re in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime situation for the world, and I think people want knowledge that they can trust, and I’m really proud that we’ve been able to be that source for lots and lots of people. It’s really hard work but really important work, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

11 | SUSAN V. BOOTH

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Since 1968 Alliance Theatre has been bringing the best of the medium to Atlanta, and often launching favorites such as The Color Purple, The Prom and Bring It On into the national spotlight. As Jennings Hertz artistic director, Susan V. Booth has been at the forefront, with the theater even winning a Regional Theatre Tony Award under her tenure. “It’s not just musicals,” she notes. “We’ve created performances and educational programming for young Atlantans that have become models for schools and theaters across the country. We firmly believe that our art form can do the most important and heroic of all work—it can expand hearts and minds,” she says. “As a national theater that has deep local roots, our commitment to excellence is coupled with a commitment to access.” That means programs like the Spelman Leadership Fellows Program, which uplifts young women of color; the Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab for artists; the Palefsky Collision project for creation and activism for teens; the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition for playwrights; the Kathy & Ken Bernhardt Theatre for the Very Young; and more. “Our current moment of COVID-navigating and racial reckoning is teaching us new skills, building new competencies and taking us into places and conversations we didn’t use to inhabit. Nothing is easy or comfortable,” says Booth, but she is firm in her resolution that five years from now the theater will be “far wider reaching, more equitable and far more tuned into Atlanta.”

12 | RAND SUFFOLK

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As the Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr. director of the High Museum of Art, Rand Suffolk has made his mark since arriving at the institution in 2015. The High has had astounding feats in five years under his tenure: Nonwhite participation increased by 240%; there’s been a 94% increase in exhibitions featuring women artists, artists of color and LGBTQIA artists. Countless programs, including free Second Sundays and smART Box, providing free art supplies to young visitors, have helped increase interest from the community, as the High proves its interest in its community.

How has the past informed the future of the High? The museum’s legacy of aspiration has set a high standard of excellence and created an institution that is truly exceptional. That said, we realize that being exceptional isn’t always enough. The future belongs to those focused on being essential as well.

Where do you see the High in five years? We all hope the High will be regarded as a national model of community engagement. That means building extraordinary collections, presenting exhibitions that captivate and delivering the programming inspired by those to strengthen our relevance as an essential community resource.

13 | BERNIE AND BILLI MARCUS

Sure, Bernie and Billi Marcus are billionaires—in a league of their own—but what’s most important to note about the Marcuses is their propensity for giving: an autism center; millions of dollars in donations to Grady Hospital; a brand-new heart-valve center; a world class aquarium, to name just a few. Through the Marcus Foundation, The Marcuses have donated to countless causes—Bernie estimated $2 billion to 300 causes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—across the country and especially here in Atlanta, with the intention of giving away the bulk of their self-made fortune. They’ve already earmarked medical discoveries, autism and veterans as just a few of the places they’d like to see the remaining 80% to 90% of the money go.

14 | ROBERT MARICICH

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International Market Centers is responsible for over 20 million square feet of B2B exhibition space across the country, with Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert Maricich overseeing it all, including the 2018 merger bringing together AmericasMart Atlanta, Atlanta Decorative Arts Center, 17 properties in High Point, N.C., Las Vegas Design Center and World Market Center Las Vegas and the corresponding Atlanta Market, Las Vegas Market, High Point Market and Atlanta Apparel Markets. He is cited as a visionary in the industry, even earning a place in the American Home Furnishings Hall of Fame this year. AmericasMart alone is responsible for thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars for the city each year as a leading wholesale marketplace housing the nation’s largest gift product mix complemented by a broad selection of home accents and fashion apparel merchandise. ADAC and ADAC West are a combined 550,000 square feet and are widely recognized as the leader of residential, hospitality and contract furnishings in the Southeast.

15 | DONNA HYLAND

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Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has always been a juggernaut in the pediatric care arena—in 2019 alone, it served 444,000 unique patients, with 1.2 million total patient visits overall and $238.6 million in benefits to the community. A new North Druid Hills campus will be completed in 2025 adding an additional 446 patient beds, and at $1.5 billion, it’s the largest healthcare project to ever be tackled in the state. At the helm is Donna Hyland, an almost 40-year veteran who now holds the title of chief executive officer. Hyland says, “Children’s is growing and innovating to provide the best care and outcomes for children. We will continue to be a source of pride for our city and enhance Atlanta’s reputation as a great place to live. As the only free-standing pediatric healthcare system in Georgia, it is our responsibility to serve both current and future generations of children and to train the next generation of doctors to deliver unique specialized care for decades to come. This precious community resource belongs to all of us and it’s more than just a hospital—it is someone’s hope, someone’s chance their child will get better. Now more than ever, we will continue to rely on community support to make the impossible possible for our patients and families.”

16 | CLYDE HIGGS

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As a leader with Atlanta BeltLine for the last five years—authentically one of the most transformational redevelopment and place-based economic development projects in the world—Higgs, now the president and chief executive officer, has his pulse on how this city ticks and is able to respond to the needs of Atlanta and the individual communities, once divided, that are served by the BeltLine (a total of 45 communities over 22 miles). Yes, the BeltLine in some parts is a scene-y place that the best restaurants call home, but Higgs and his team are adamant that the BeltLine also be used as a catalyst for change: creation and preservation of jobs, affordable housing and transit, ample opportunity for access and inclusion in every sense of the word.

17 | TED TURNER

Ted Turner is widely known as the founder of CNN and TBS, but his greatest contribution to the world is perhaps his dedication to conservation. He is the proud steward of over 2 million acres of land in the United States spread out over 16 ranches focused on conserving native species like bison. Whether The Captain Planet Foundation, The Turner Foundation, The Turner Endangered Species Fund or the United Nations Foundation—Turner pledged $1 billion—Turner has consistently proved his dedication to this country.

18 | ANDREW YOUNG

When people ask where I studied to be an ambassador, I say my neighborhood and my school. I’ve tried to tell my kids that you don’t wait until you’re in high school or college to start dealing with problems of people being different. The younger you start, the better.

—Civil rights leader Ambassador Andrew Young, interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

19 | ARTHUR BLANK

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One half of Home Depot’s success story, Arthur Blank, the owner and chairman of Blank Family of Businesses, has parlayed his savvy business skills into many arenas, both literally with Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of Blank-owned Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United—and figuratively. While managing a large portfolio, Blank also has the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, through which he’s granted more than $560 million to a variety of causes ranging from early childhood development to the arts, veterans, greenspaces and more. This year alone, through his foundation and businesses, Blank has donated nearly $7 million to COVID-19 pandemic relief.

20 | KAREN L. PATY

Karen L. Paty oversees the Georgia Council for the Arts, which supports artists, art programming and local government. With a combined $37 billion in revenue from the creative industries in Georgia, the arts are as important to economic development as they are to quality of life. Through grants and programming such as arts education, literary arts programming, exhibits and collections, it’s a large task to oversee, but Paty has steered the ship since 2011 as the organization’s first ever director.

21 | CYNTHIA N. DAY

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Citizens Trust Bank celebrates an enormous milestone in 2021: What was originally founded by five Black men in 1921 to promote financial stability and business development, to stress the principles of thrift and to make homeownership possible to more people has morphed into one of the largest African American-owned financial institutions in the country. Under the leadership of President and Chief Executive Officer Cynthia N. Day since 2012 (Day has worked for the institution since 1993), the bank continues its legacy of economic equality and empowering its clients, whether it be through its online financial empowerment learning center or its support of community organizations. Day practices what Citizens Trust Bank preaches—she’s involved with Aaron’s Inc. where she chairs the Audit Committee, The National Bankers Association and Georgia Bankers Association.

22 | MATT BRONFMAN

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Four of Atlanta’s biggest developments, Ponce City Market, Westside Provisions District, Southern Dairies and Buckhead Village (formerly Shops Buckhead Atlanta), fall under the watch of Matt M. Bronfman, principal and chief executive officer of Jamestown Properties.

What about Atlanta appeals to Jamestown?

All too often, cities tear down older buildings and replace them with tall, glass, modern structures that are basically commodities and essentially interchangeable. At Jamestown, we believe in reimagining buildings with good bones and turning them into community centers where there is more of a sense of place. Atlanta has been a great partner in this journey for us. Each of the properties and neighborhoods have a unique story, and it’s up to us to figure out how to curate these spaces so that our guests have great experiences. Responsible development can have a transformative impact on a community. We have a responsibility to create spaces that will lay the foundation for Atlanta’s future.

Where will Jamestown be in Atlanta in five years?

Our U.S. headquarters has been in Atlanta for the last three decades, and we plan to be here for many more years to come. We believe in Atlanta for the long term. It has strong demographics, is diverse, has great weather and is a good place to build community. We will continue to look for opportunities throughout the city where we can create destinations that are collaborative, resilient, responsive to our neighbors and well prepared to weather challenging times.

What do you personally love best about being based in Atlanta?

I am fortunate that I have a lot of my extended family here, from in-laws to siblings to nieces to nephews and cousins. I like to believe that the projects on which I work (including not only Jamestown projects but also the Atlanta BeltLine and Piedmont Park, as I have been on the board of both great organizations) contribute to Atlanta being a destination where the next generation wants to live. Put another way, I hope my kids want to come back to Atlanta after college.

23 | LYNNE LAUBE

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As a co-founder of Cardlytics and its current chief executive officer, Lynne Laube is one of the top women in purchase history-based marketing. Cardlytics is an advertising platform built within the digital channels of banks such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Chase. Using its insight into half of all card swipes in the U.S., Cardlytics helps its Fortune 500 advertising partners better target their marketing and measure the impact of their campaigns. Laube founded Cardlytics alongside Scott Grimes in 2008 and since then has been integral to its success, often cited as one of the country’s fastest-growing companies. With a rare view from the tech top, Laube has also made it her mission to mentor and help develop women in tech through Women of Cardlytics.

24 | CANDICE L. SAUNDERS

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As president and chief executive officer of Wellstar Health System, one of Georgia’s largest hospital systems, Candice L. Saunders provides leadership for not only 25,000 employees across the state, but countless medical communities—and she’s got the goods to back it up, having started her career as a critical care nurse. The medical giant counts 11 hospitals, 300-plus medical office locations, nine cancer centers, 73 outpatient rehabilitation centers and more among its impressive network. With her leadership, six hospitals were acquired under the Wellstar umbrella, and Wellstar Kennestone Hospital became the largest tertiary regional medical center in the Southeast. (Wellstar Kennestone Hospital also recently opened its new Emergency Department, which is now the second-largest and busiest emergency department in the country.) While its dedication to innovation and top-quality healthcare is paramount, Wellstar has also been cited numerous times as one of the best places to work thanks to Saunders’ leadership.

25 | JOHN SELDEN

As general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, John Selden not only oversees the busiest and most efficient airport in the world, but also multibillion-dollar capital improvement programs. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport also has an acclaimed concessions program, arts program and music program. With a $34.8 billion economic impact, ATL is truly an economic force in addition to the gateway to over 150 domestic destinations and 70 international ones. Even in uncertain times—surely a task no one saw coming—Selden and his team manage to uphold the standards by which the world knows our world-class airport.



Photography by: From top, photos: by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press; courtesy of delta air lines; by jeff roffman; by Dewey Nicks; courtesy of north american properties; courtesy of calendly; courtesy of CNN/WarnerMedia; by patrick heagney; by Johnathon Kelso; courtesy of IMC; by sintoses photography; courtesy of children’s healthcare of atlanta; by arnica rice photography; courtesy of citizens trust bank; courtesy of jamestown; lynne laube photo courtesy of cardlytics; candice saunders photo courtesy of wellstar;