NCA’s YPN Future Leadership Program: The Class Of 2023


Washington — Six young professionals from across the confectionery industry have been selected for NCA’s 2023 Future Leadership Program. The initiative, which is dedicated to helping young professionals across the industry access networking and professional development opportunities to grow their careers, is part of the Association’s Young Professionals Network (YPN) program with support from the NCSA Candy Hall of Fame. 

Launched in 2016, the one-year program pairs up-and-coming industry leaders with senior confectionery category stalwarts who serve as formal mentors.

“Our Future Leaders play a pivotal role in the confectionery industry, as they have the capabilities to innovate and move our industry forward,” says John Downs, NCA president and CEO. “The Future Leadership Program helps ensure that these exceptional young professionals are provided the tools needed to continue their success and reach their potential. I look forward to working alongside these impressive individuals and watching their careers develop.” 

Kelsea Ferrato

Kelsea Ferrato (35)

Director of Marketing
Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Inc.

Mentor: Mark Wakefield, Senior Vice-President of Marketing,
Ferrero NA 

Born and raised in Durango, CO, Kelsea has worked at RMCF for more than 10 years. She says she has grown with the company, working in social media marketing, brand management and into her current role as director of marketing. “I am very passionate about business development, education and connection, and authentic leadership as catalysts for vibrant communities,” she says. In her free time she serves on the boards of several community organizations including the local Boys & Girls Club; Mancos Valley Resources, a fiscal sponsor for 15 local non-profits; and Leadership La Plata. 

Kelsea points out that in the next five years she sees confectioners continuing to innovate across product categories and manufacturing practices to insulate against the challenges that will constrain business in the coming years: sugar policy, shifting consumer preferences and behavior, environmental regulation, and workforce trends.

“I will provide leadership and a ‘voice at the table’ for small and mid-sized chocolatiers and candymakers,” she explains. “These businesses are vital to the health of the industry and are often disproportionately affected by legislative action and regulatory requirements. Without the extensive resources of larger organizations, these smaller businesses are at a disadvantage as they try to navigate transformation.

“To proactively prepare for the problems of the future, industry partners must work side-by-side to balance short-term profit and long-term gain. When we focus on sustainable solutions, that are accessible to enterprises of all sizes, we’re better positioned to create lasting success for the entire industry.”

Gordon Emily Headshot
Emily Gordon

Emily Gordon (31)

Senior Category Manager Everyday Take-Home and Seasonal Candy,
Walgreen Co.

Mentor: Patrick Murnane, Vice-Chairman, Murnane Companies 

After graduating from Indiana University in 2013 with a degree in apparel merchandising, Emily began her career at Kohl’s Corp. Leveraging her merchandising experience, she joined Walgreen Co. as associate category manager for premium and season candy in 2016. “The combination of product ingenuity, business dynamics and the people within this industry fascinated me,” she says. 

Emily points out that while she has been successful, she believes no amount of knowledge and skill is enough to succeed in this industry. “It is clearer than ever that decisions made on confections at Walgreens not only influence the immediate business but can significantly impact the broader organization and the comprehensive success of this tight-knit industry,” she says.

Recognizing future challenges the industry will face, Emily says consumers will continue to be highly conscious of where their dollars are spent. “This means there will be continued emphasis on reputation and sustainability that will influence how this industry operates. Sustainability will become a pertinent pillar that will bring challenges but drive longevity, scalability and goodwill,” she points out.

Noting the confectionery industry will drive change through transparency and education, Emily says business relationships will evolve as existing arrangements and new priorities clash. But she says a collective understanding will preside to drive changes that meet consumer expectations. 

AJ Khoury

AJ Khoury (39)

Director of Technical Sales, Capol LLC

Mentor: Rob Nelson, Chairman
& CEO, Elmer Chocolate 

Throughout his career AJ has found ways to support and encourage others. He serves on several professional boards and has been a presenter for AACT and an instructor at both the PMCA and University of Wisconsin Candy Schools. He says he sees the NCA Future Leadership Program as an opportunity to have a seat at the table with an elite group that can bring growth and diversity to the confectionery industry. 

“Reflecting on my life and career thus far, I am deeply aware of how much my success was influenced by the mentorships and relationships I made along the way, even as early as in college. As I look at the makeup of the confectionery industry, I see an opportunity for leadership in the industry to better represent the diversity we see the people from the production floor all the way through to the consumer,” he says.

Looking ahead, AJ expects to see a greater impact of diversity on confectionery, a greater focus on better-for-you products, and continued growth of the industry footprint. “Confectionery is a lifestyle and passion for me, not only a career — as such I positioned myself as best as I can to be able to listen to the voices informing and influencing the industry.”

Stephanie Laub

Stephanie Laub (33)

Customer Business Lead – Disney, Mars Wrigley

Mentor: Scott Miller, Sr. Director, Sales, PIM Brands, Inc. 

Stephanie is a second-generation Mars associate who says she is motivated by complex challenges and the opportunity for creative problem solving. With the company since 2015, she values building collaborative relationships and focuses her energy on sowing the seeds of the future. 

“My professional experiences have allowed me to see the role of confectionery beyond the shelf in the meaningful moments of connection that occur when people come together to share a meal, make memories with their family, and are moved to bring those moments to others through their voice on social platforms,” she says.

Pointing out that in the next five years, the confectionery industry will reflect the values and priorities of the generation with the greatest discretionary spending power — Gen Z — Stephanie notes: “Two areas of influence will be: what we stand for and how we engage with consumers.”

She adds: “Today, our positions and efforts behind positive change are little known to consumers. My priority for the confectionery industry of tomorrow, is to communicate our efforts and think differently about the strategy and tactics for deployment. How do we take learnings from other industries, such as dairy and pharmaceutical, to advance our agenda, build loyalty and bring new consumers to the category?”

Carly Meck

Carly Meck (33)

R&D Manager – Product Development, Blommer Chocolate Co.

Mentor: Tim Leonard, Vice-President of Alernative Channels,
CA Carlin 

Carly joined Blommer Chocolate in 2010 as an intern and has since earned four promotions to become the R&D manager for product development at the company’s East Greenville, PA facility. Winner of the PMCA Marie Kelso award for a paper titled Mysteries of Conching Revealed, she says she has ambitions of growing into senior leadership roles within the confectionery industry. 

Carly says she hopes to take the skills, connections and information she learns through her participation in this program to her team of aspiring young confectionery scientists. “I feel passionately that spreading knowledge to younger generations will quickly and creatively shape our industry for the better,” she points out.

“It can be tough to think about the confectionery industry in five years knowing the change and growth we have seen within the past two years during the pandemic. If we use the past two years as a case study, we will continue to see more convenience, automation and artificial intelligence,” she notes. 

Carly says her contribution to these changes will be researching and testing new raw materials, networking to discover innovative ideas, and investing in the education, both for herself and her team. “Education is the best way to anticipate the uncertainty of what’s ahead since change is the only constant,” she adds.

Ryan Miller

Ryan Miller (37)

Vice-President, Supply Chain, Spangler Candy Co.

Mentor: Joe Melville, Owner & Director, Melville Candy Co. 

Ryan began working at Spangler as a college intern and never left. Now a 14-year veteran of the company, he says he is passionate about the business and realizes that the industry needs just as much support as individual companies. 

“In five years, people will still enjoy sweet treats and most of the same brands will be sold around the world. That said, both omni-channel retail and the ‘better- for-you’ trend could have a significant impact on how people enjoy candy,” he suggests.

The way people shop will continue to evolve, Ryan points out, explaining: “This doesn’t necessarily just mean ‘ecommerce,’ but also how they shop in store and even before they get to the store. The confectioners who work closely with retailers to make their products available and marketable in all channels will have the most success.”

In addition, he says portion sizes will continue to get smaller and labels will get cleaner. “I am a health-conscious dad with a dietitian wife, but we still love candy. However, the golden rule for us and our kids is ‘Everything in moderation.’ I hope to bring further awareness to people that candy as a treat is ok, and also to candy companies that health consciousness is growing and cannot be ignored.”