Rising Stars 2023
Our inaugural list of the up-and-comers shaping our city and the world
Ask any unicorn start-up CEO, bestselling author or record-breaking athlete and they’ll tell you that there’s no such thing as overnight success. Skill, hard work, perseverance, planning, luck and just a bit of magical thinking all play a part in reaching the top. This year, as a companion piece to our annual list of the 50 most influential Torontonians, we are tracking 25 up-and-comers in a variety of fields, celebrating what sets them apart and raises them up. Whether they’re building careers on the runway or on the ice, in the boardroom or in their communities, behind the camera or in front of it, they’re all making the city a better place—their way.
Jet Bent-Lee, 25
Thousands of Torontonians have vied for reservations at Susur Lee’s restaurants, but thanks to his youngest son, Jet, some 35 million people have watched him turn a Starbucks cake pop into a flambéed apple tart with caramel-rum sauce on TikTok. Jet initially approached his father to transform a Chick-fil-A spread into five-star fare on camera out of pandemic boredom. Now the pair film regular segments that include fast-food makeovers, over-the-top fruit challenges (Is a $300 mango ever worth it?) and reviews of Gen Z food gadgets. The content is enticing, but the real draw is the father-son vibes—it turns out even celebrity-chef dads say the darndest things.
Amrit Kaur, 30
The ensemble cast of Mindy Kaling’s HBO Max dramedy, The Sex Lives of College Girls, may include a Broadway vet and a Chalamet, but Kaur is the group’s unparalleled scene stealer. As unabashedly horny comedy queen Bela Malhotra, Kaur gets big laughs and annihilates cultural stereotypes about how young Indian women should behave. Right after filming ended on the show, Kaur was pulling double duty as a mother and daughter in the coming-of-age drama Queen of My Dreams from Canadian director Fawzia Mirza—a masterful performance that got her tapped as one of TIFF’s Rising Stars at this year’s fest.
Mallory Greene, 30
CEO, Eirene Cremations
The daughter of a funeral director and a hospice nurse, Greene is the CEO and co-founder of Eirene Cremations, a start-up that wants to transform how we manage death. There are no funeral homes or hearses at Eirene, just 11 employees who field calls and online requests for cremations and aquamations (the process, most famously used by Desmond Tutu, decomposes a body via heat, water and an alkali). The team also arranges for corpses to be picked up and for remains to be delivered directly to loved ones’ doors. Founded in 2020, the company pulled in $1 million in revenue in its first year and has amassed $3.5 million in investment capital since. It also secured Greene—who is hard at work on a US expansion—a spot on Forbes’s 30 under 30.
Nakissa Koomalsingh, 28
Koomalsingh, better known as Keesa K, grew up working toward a career on the court until an injury put her hoop dreams—and her ACL—on ice. But she refused to step away entirely, organizing meetups and mentoring sessions that evolved into Canada’s first semi-pro women’s basketball league, launched in 2022 and sponsored by Nike Toronto, Red Bull and Canada Goose. HoopQueens is a four-team, two-month tournament, and the league also runs year-round scrimmages for younger athletes as a way to push back against attrition rates (one in three girls drop out of sports versus one in 10 boys). Koomalsingh’s new dream? That HoopQueens will act as a feeder program for Canada’s long-hoped-for WNBA team.
Jacob Martin, 29
Ten months ago, Martin took the top prize at the World Class Canada cocktail competition, an Olympics-style event that draws competitors from across the country. Then, in September, he did the same thing on a world stage in Brazil, winning the Global Bartender of the Year title. The world’s most talented mixologist can usually be found on Ossington, slinging drinks as the bar manager at Bar Banane. His signature tipples aren’t garnished with gold dust, and there’s no liquid nitrogen on his menu. Instead, Martin strives to make the extraordinary appear simple: his competition-clinching Silversmith mixes gin with winter melons, cucumber, thai basil and a blend of pastis and pine tree sap.
Debby Friday, 29
Friday’s debut album, Good Luck, certainly lived up to its name when the musician beat out established acts like Feist and the four-time-shortlisted Snotty Nose Rez Kids for this year’s $50,000 Polaris Prize. But it’s taken more than fairy dust to get the self-produced former DJ, born Deborah Micho, from her small village in Nigeria to the Polaris stage and onto her current European tour. Since releasing her first electro-industrial tracks in 2018, Friday has fearlessly channelled her trauma—namely, long-time substance abuse—into a genre-bending sound that lines up seamlessly with her rallying cry to her fans, fellow artists and the world at large: “Protect your strangeness.”
Devery Jacobs, 30
Actor, writer, producer
In the past few months, Jacobs has wrapped her three-season run on FX’s groundbreaking series Reservation Dogs and premiered two movies at TIFF (This Place, a queer Indigenous love story that she co-wrote, and Backspot, a queer cheerleading comedy from Elliot Page’s new production company, Page Boy Productions, and Devery’s own Night Is Y). In October, she made international headlines by calling out Martin Scorsese for a depiction of the Osage Nation in Killers of the Flower Moon that “dehumanizes” them and for the film’s “unrelenting and unnecessarily graphic” violence. Next up, Jacobs will make her Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in Echo, the studio’s first superhero story with an Indigenous main character, which premieres in January.
Chelsee Pettit, 29
This past June, Pettit called out Walmart for selling a T-shirt featuring Indigenous syllabics—ones that looked more than a little like the logo used by aaniin, her streetwear brand known for its bright colours and cultural symbols. The conglomerate didn’t blink, but Pettit earned praise for promoting and protecting Indigenous representation in fashion. Also called aaniin (an Ojibwe word that translates to “hello”), her shop is Canada’s first Indigenous department store, selling Pettit’s own label as well as designs from other Indigenous creators, including streetwear from Lesley Hampton, recycled blankets from Mini Tipi and jewellery by Inaabiwin Wiigwas. Previously a bricks-and-mortar space in Stackt Market, aaniin is pivoting to e-commerce in the new year and will be hosting pop-ups in malls across the country.
Chandler Levack, 37
As a teenage cinephile working behind the counter at a Blockbuster in Burlington, Levack dreamed of one day contributing to the cinematic canon herself. More than a decade later, the writer-director mined those formative years for her debut feature film, I Like Movies. A quirky, nostalgic love letter to celluloid, it earned rave reviews at TIFF in 2022 before getting a wide release this past March and swiftly charming audiences and critics (see: the film’s 100 per cent Rotten Tomatoes rating). Levack’s forthcoming follow-up, Anglophone, is another coming-of-age story, this time inspired by her years living in Montreal.
Spencer Badu, 30
Badu’s eponymous post-gender streetwear label melds the crisp pragmatism of uniforms with the colours and flare of Ghana, his parents’ home country. It’s a striking juxtaposition that landed the designer an emerging talent nomination in 2021 from the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards and a slew of celebrity fans, including Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky. For his new collab with Ruffles chips and the Raptors, Badu designed a capsule workwear collection made up of three pieces—a jacket, a tee and a tuque—inspired by both the team’s ’90s origins and its We the North–era swagger.
Charlotte Siegel, 28
It takes a light touch and a killer set of pipes to bring something new to a 130-year-old opera. But, as the fiery flirt Musetta in the COC’s recent production of La Bohème, Siegel did just that, pushing past the character’s clichés and swiftly proving that this member of the Ensemble Studio was more than ready for the main stage. And she wants to help other young singers get there too: in 2020, Siegel co-founded the Marigold Music Program, a Black-led non-profit that makes musical education more accessible to marginalized youth through an annual summer intensive and year-round mentoring.
Sarah Nurse, 28
Nurse has been a Barbie doll and appeared on the front of Cheerios boxes. She also outperformed a giant when she beat Hayley Wickenheiser’s Olympic record by scoring a whopping 18 points in Beijing in 2022, leading her team to the top of the podium. Now, the star forward will be lacing up for the Professional Women’s Hockey League, a long-awaited venture that will launch its six-team, 24-game season in January. Along with former Olympic teammates Blayre Turnbull and Renata Fast, Nurse forms the foundation of Team Toronto (name TBD)—meaning the city may finally have a winning hockey team.
Dalia Ahmed, 27,
Alexandra Assouad, 25,
and Akanksha Shelat, 27
Co-founders of Mind-Easy
When this trio of U of T and OISE grads launched their app in 2021, they wanted to address both a dearth of affordable therapy and the industry’s overarching lack of cultural competence. Mind-Easy—now serving more than 20,000 users across 17 countries in over 100 languages and dialects—provides made-to-measure mental health care using AI-informed avatars for $9.99 a month (the cost of a premium membership). Following a $1.1 million investment from Techstars, the Fearless Fund and other investors, the company is in the process of expanding its “pre-therapy” platform, which is meant to act as a support for people on waiting lists or for anyone looking to maintain their mental health in between clinical sessions.
Farnoosh Talaee, 34
Director, The Next Contemporary
Last year, Talaee was the curator of public programs for Shirin Neshat’s show at MOCA, the Iranian icon’s first major Canadian exhibition in 20 years. This year, Talaee opened her own gallery, The Next Contemporary on Dupont, to the public. She’s since put on four group shows, highlighting the work of buzzy BIPOC and queer artists (Anique Jordan, Laurence Philomène) and cementing her status as an art-world tastemaker. Her influence extends beyond her gallery walls too: in her roles as a member of Mercer Union’s board and co-chair of ARTrageous, Talaee is building up the city’s next artistic cohort.
Jeanine Brito, 30
While some of us became obsessed with our sourdough starters and Wordle scores during the pandemic, this self-taught painter coped with lockdown by creating eerie, surrealist portraiture (skinned lambs and heightened femininity feature prominently). After posting the results on Instagram, she was soon fielding calls from galleries in London, New York and Madrid, not to mention a DM from French fashion house Nina Ricci inviting her to collaborate on a fall-winter 2023 capsule collection. These days, Brito is focused on spring 2024: she’s creating a raft of new work for her first solo show in New York.
Dorian Who, 34
An evangelist for slow fashion, Who uses deadstock fabric to craft every piece of vibrant, avant-garde streetwear for her eponymous Toronto label. Earlier this year, the Iranian-born designer (a.k.a. Dorian Rahimzadeh) snagged the award for emerging talent at the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards and a spot on the short-list for the prestigious Amiri Prize. But Who was already a star to her social media followers, who are quick to fire-emoji her idiosyncratic outfit choices and track her many high-profile collabs with big brands, including Burberry, Dior, Valentino and Porsche.
Lise Birikundavyi, 37
Managing partner, BKR Capital
Money is harder to come by than ever—unless you’ve managed to impress Birikundavyi. She runs the show at BKR Capital, the $20-million venture capital fund that she co-founded in 2021 to invest in tech start-ups founded by Black entrepreneurs. It’s the first Black-led venture capital firm in Canada, and Birikundavyi is the first Black woman in the country to manage an institutionally backed fund. Over the past two years, BKR has received more than 1,000 pitches, amassed a 12-company-strong portfolio and led the largest funding round for a Black woman in Canada (for Claudette McGowan’s cybersecurity start-up, Protexxa). And Birikundavyi isn’t done: wanting to see the same kind of diversity on the other side of the table, she’s overseeing a training program for aspiring Black investors.
Siphesihle November, 25
Ballet dancer and choreographer
In 2021, when November became the youngest principal dancer (and the second Black one) in the National Ballet’s history, it wasn’t the first time he’d vaulted ahead: he was offered a job in the corps de ballet directly after graduation, bypassing the usual apprenticeship. Born in Zolani, South Africa, November brings a gravity-defying physicality to the stage that is eye-popping (even for a ballet dancer), one rooted in the rapid-fire kwaito music of his youth. Through his dynamic takes on classic roles (the title role in The Nutcracker, Lensky in Eugene Onegin) and his nascent choreography career (the main-stage piece On Solid Ground), November is transforming the traditionally lily-white world of ballet, one performance at a time.
Stephen Mensah, 23
Executive director, Toronto Youth Cabinet
After learning that the City of Toronto was planning to allocate just $2 million toward youth funding in the 2023 budget, Mensah pushed back hard, eventually convincing council to kick in an additional $10 million. It’s still nowhere near what’s required, he says, but it’s a start that can help fund urgently needed community hubs in high-risk neighbourhoods. On a provincial level, Mensah and his team have been instrumental in bringing about mandatory mental health education (a $150 million investment) as well as free menstrual products in public schools. Next year, he’ll continue lobbying for the same sort of buy-in on student nutrition via a free lunch program proposed in partnership with the Ontario Teachers Union and provincial and national food banks.
Chloe Brown, 32
Policy analyst and former mayoral candidate
Brown became a household name when she finished third in the 2022 mayoral race that secured John Tory a third term until, well, you know. In this summer’s by-election, she stood out again in a beyond-crowded field, pulling into seventh place ahead of sitting councillor Brad Bradford. (Notably, Brown had an ambitious plan to reorganize city hall; in her words, “Toronto is not broken—it’s poorly governed.”) She may have lost out on running the city, but she’s still looking out for its citizens: when she’s not working on new approaches to skills development as a policy analyst for the Future Skills Centre, Brown is preparing to launch SIN (Solidarity in Numbers), her umbrella organization that will include an impact investment initiative and an Apprentice-style game show for community endeavours.
Kyne Santos, 25
STEM has many evangelists, but most of them don’t use candy-coloured wigs and elaborate makeup as teaching tools. While wrapping up his undergrad in math at Waterloo, Santos competed on the 2020 edition of Canada’s Drag Race, leveraging that appearance to supercharge his online footprint. But the main attraction is his fun, incisive take on numbers: each week, he posts riddles, explainers (“Why do airlines overbook?”) and insights (follow along as he parses his brother’s Grade 11 physics homework). Now a full-time “drag queen math communicator,” Santos has 1.5 million followers on TikTok and an upcoming book from nerd mecca John Hopkins University Press.
Josh Domingues, 34
In the seven years since Domingues launched his waste-reduction app, Flashfood, rising food costs—and our food system’s effects on the environment—have become grave concerns. His approach is straightforward: Flashfood partners with retailers like Loblaw, No Frills and Zehrs (almost 2,000 locations in total) to offer nearly expired groceries at vastly reduced prices. So far, the app has diverted 40 million kilograms of food from landfills and saved shoppers almost $200 million across Canada and the US. Now, Domingues wants to do the same for our furry friends: Flashfood is teaming up with Ren’s Pets to launch a similar concept for pet food in Ontario.
Phil De Luna, 31
Chief carbon scientist and head of engineering, Deep Sky
While earning a PhD in materials science and engineering at U of T, De Luna zeroed in on carbon capture and conversion, processes that reduce CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. Since then, he’s been a founding team member of a carbon tech start-up that turns CO2 into renewable fuels and chemicals. He’s also worked for the management-consulting firm McKinsey and Company’s sustainability practice. And this past August, he took a leadership position at Deep Sky, a carbon-removal venture that is building large-scale infrastructure to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. De Luna doesn’t just want to stop climate change—he wants to reverse it.
Justice Faith Betty, 26,
and Nia Faith Betty, 22
When Nia started a dancewear company for dancers of colour five years ago, she mostly wanted to help them avoid what she’d always done: dye her ballet apparel to match her skin tone. Then Justice suggested that they branch out across causes and communities, getting other Gen Zers involved in activism and volunteerism—and Révolutionnaire 2.0 was born. For the sisters, having an impact can take many forms: they’ve delivered packages to housing-insecure women, launched a capsule collection with Roots (which sold out in 24 hours) and a nail polish line with Essie, and created a content series about change makers called Meet a Revolutionary. In the coming months, Justice and Nia will be working on a podcast featuring Gen Z community leaders and experts as well as a partnership with the UN around art and activism.
Brooks Barnett, 36
Manager of economic development policy, Amazon
Amazon has close to 70 major sites across Canada, more than 20 of them in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Barnett—formerly the director for government relations and policy at the Real Property Association of Canada—is the company’s point man in those communities, building ties with local leaders and non-profits in spots such as St. Thomas, where Amazon recently opened a new fulfillment centre with 1,000 full-time employees. His passion for community extends beyond work hours: Barnett sits on the boards of Habitat for Humanity GTA and the charitable land trust Community Affordable Housing Solutions.