All Roads Lead Home
Five young professionals return to the city that raised them
By Cassie Bustamante
Photographs by John Gessner
Sometimes it takes a wild adventure in a faraway land to appreciate what’s been under your nose all along. Just as Dorothy in L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, The Wizard of Oz, has to be whisked away via a tornado and led on a magical adventure to the glittering Emerald City, many of Greensboro’s rising young professionals have followed their own yellow brick roads, only to discover that they “had the power all along” to find what they were seeking, right where their journey began.
Cecelia Thompson, executive director of Action Greensboro and creator of Boomerang Greensboro, acts as our city’s very own Glenda the Good Witch, helping those who wish to return home to Greensboro land safely and securely. While it takes more than the click of one’s heels, Thompson tells us that Boomerang concierge Erin Sherrill is there to make connections, set up realtors and provide resources that roll out the emerald carpet.
“Greensboro’s a small enough town that you run into people you’ve helped make those connections,” says Thompson. “To see them settled, happy and thriving in Greensboro, that’s the goal.”
We spoke to five recent “Boomerangs” who, aided by Thompson and Sherrill, have come back to Greensboro, seeing for themselves that their greatest desires are right here in their own backyards. After all, there’s no place like home.
Do you know someone you’d like to recruit back to Greensboro? Let Boomerang Greensboro help by referring them here: boomeranggso.com/boomerang-referral-form.
The assistant to Greensboro’s city manager hopes to boost the fortune of young citizens
April Albritton stepped onto UNCG’s campus as a prospective student and suddenly understood what love at first sight was all about. After growing up in Charlotte, she knew the lush campus, friendly students and accepting faculty would make her feel at home for the next four years. Upon graduating in 2006, this young professional with a heart full of wanderlust craved change and cultivated a career in college athletics that would take her all over the country. But three years ago, Albritton (pronounced ALL-Britain) returned to Greensboro to plant roots without letting go of her sense of adventure.
As a UNCG undergrad, Albritton managed the men’s basketball team while studying kinesiology (the study of the mechanics of human movement and how physical activity and sports affect us). She doesn’t consider herself an athlete, but loves that sports “bring people together” no matter “what socioeconomic background” they come from. During her three years as manager, the team became her second family and some of the players remain her best friends today.
Despite the strong bonds she formed at UNCG, Albritton “couldn’t wait to get out.” When an opportunity to be assistant director in a Seattle university athletic department came her way, she took the leap. That “rainy and gloomy” city left an imprint on her heart and she still travels back once a year, but eventually left for a job in Charleston, S.C., followed by Long Island, N.Y.
But when her dad got sick, Albritton moved back to Charlotte, which eventually led her to a fundraising position for a Carolina Panthers player whose board she still sits on.
Four years after her return to North Carolina, UNCG called and said there was a position for her if she was interested. “I absolutely wanted a chance to go back to the place I love that started everything in my life,” she says.
In fact, shortly after her return, she knocked off a bucket list item and bought her first home, citing Greensboro’s housing affordability. “I’m making a commitment to stay down South, to stay in North Carolina,” she says. “I thought I had one more — maybe a Chicago in me — but I’m actually really happy here. And that’s a good feeling.”
After two years as director of Spartan Club, a chance to work for the City of Greensboro popped up. Although still heavily involved in volunteer work at UNCG, Albritton left her job there to take on the position of assistant to the city manager, Taiwo Jaiyeoba (TY-woh JAH-ye-aw-bah). The two had “developed a really good rapport” when a mutual friend connected them so that she could give him the scoop on Greensboro after he relocated from Charlotte. When he reinstated the assistant position, she applied.
Sports remains a huge part of her life and she holds tight to the dream of one day running an NFL team or becoming a conference commissioner, but it’s that community aspect of athletics that reverberates through everything she does in her current role. Her “passion project”? Seeing Greensboro develop into a dynamic creative, cultural and economic magnet that would boost the fortune of its young people.
Having lived in Seattle and spent a lot of time in some of America’s hippest urbanscapes, doesn’t Greensboro get a little boring? With lunchtime walks to LeBauer Park, a steady stream of shows at the Tanger Center, UNCG athletics to cheer on, giant chocolate chip cookies from Revolution Mill’s Black Magnolia Southern Patisserie and live jazz during Wine Wednesday at Double Oaks B&B, Albritton finds the city far from dull.
But it was the 2022 NC FolkFest that marked a defining moment. Headliner George Clinton was the favorite artist of her late father. When Albritton heard he was performing, she prepared for rain or shine and ventured downtown. “I actually caught the sunglasses he was wearing during the concert, and then snuck backstage and got a picture, too . . . These are the things you can do in Greensboro.”
With so much to explore in her own backyard, Albritton is excited for even more to come. “My commitment is to watching Greensboro grow,” she says. While work at the city is often about long-range planning, she adds, “I want to stick around and be part of that before I say, ‘What’s next?’”
A YouTube carpenter builds a home base in Greensboro
Ethan James knows all about what it means to be a one-man show. When it comes to content creation, scripting, filming and editing for his successful YouTube channel, The Honest Carpenter, everything you see has been done using only his own two hands. Though he lacks a team of coworkers, his online community consists of over 674,000 subscribers. And when it came time to establish a base for his operations, he heard the siren — perhaps it was Minerva — of his alma mater calling him back.
At age 13, James began working for his father in the Raleigh and Wake Forest area where they lived. “My dad was a builder and he was also a carpenter’s son,” he says. Even with the trade running deep in his veins, he vowed to never become a carpenter. He also recalls once telling a friend, “If there’s one thing I can absolutely swear to you up and down, it’s that I will never have a YouTube channel — ever.”
In 2000, James began attending UNCG, where he majored in English. During his time there, he worked at the defunct Borders’ chain of bookstores while still working construction for his dad when he was home during breaks. “I’m book obsessed,” laughs James. “In my ideal life, I’d be an author, not a video person.”
His love of books led him into McKay’s — then Ed McKay Used Books & More — to look for work after graduation. Ironically, it was his construction background that earned him the job since McKay knew he might have use for someone with his abilities on staff. One day, due to the burden of hefty textbooks, a set of bookshelves collapsed. James made repairs and “pretty soon they pulled me off the sales floor and I did handyman stuff for them for a few years.”
With that experience under his tool belt, James decided, after all, to go into carpentry on his own, landing him back in the Raleigh area, where he stayed for seven years. Which of course means, he concedes, “I’m a third-generation carpenter.” He also teamed up with his father to create a consultancy business and started making videos to market it. But the videos took on a life of their own and The Honest Carpenter channel was born. “I never intended any of this,” says James, referring to his YouTube success. “It was an accident — a fortunate accident.”
Because of his self-made career being almost entirely online, James can live almost anywhere as long as he has a shop studio space, which he found at The Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship. Greensboro has everything he desires, plus the community feel and welcoming energy he craves. “There’s just a vibe here and I haven’t been able to find it anywhere else, so I came back.”
Now that he’s back, he finds himself often at one of his favorite spots, Tate Street Coffee House, writing and editing, just as he did during his studies at UNCG.
These days, he’s creating videos to speak out about a major concern — the missing next generation of builders — including one titled “Where Have All the Carpenters Gone?” He’s distraught about the lack of messaging reaching younger audiences. “There is no Bob the Builder anymore . . . they cancelled it.”
But James, who has published five fantasy books for kids already, has big dreams and a plan to solve that problem.
A few years ago, he introduced a cartoon character — fittingly named James the Honest Carpenter — on his YouTube show. James’ ultimate goal is to find a willing publishing partner to meet young audiences where they are, bringing forth the next Bob the Builder type of franchise, with a show and graphic novels that will “help kids become aware that the world they’re walking in was actually built by someone.”
If anyone can make that happen, it’s James. As he’s learned throughout his journey, “Doors open when you least expect it,” and one should never say never.
A singer-songwriter tunes into himself in order to help others
Every morning since moving into his Burlington fixer-upper on Lake Cammack in June of 2021, Afika Nxumalo (pronounced New-MALL-Oh, with a click incorporated for the “X”) pours himself a mug of fresh brewed coffee, steps off his back deck into a shaded backyard abutting the shore and takes a moment before starting the day. For this singer-songwriter — who once penned a song called “Morning Depression” — it’s a welcome change from the small space living and busyness of Brooklyn, New York.
Now his morning routine consists of affirmations, some of which are written on mirrors throughout his home, as well as the meditation to “see what God is trying to tell me before the sun comes up.”
Nxumalo, who grew up in Greensboro and was once part of local hip hop groups The Urban Sophisticates and Phive, has spent almost a decade in Brooklyn and London launching his solo career. Eventually, this “Grimsley kid” landed himself a spot on NBC’s Songland.
When he was first in talks with producers, the plan was to use a song titled “Neverland.” But as Nxumalo can only assume, the infamous Leaving Neverland documentary came out around that time and the song was dropped. He didn’t hear from Songland’s producers for a while, but at his birthday celebration with friends that year, he chose to raise a glass and give thanks for making it that far.
As he’s learned throughout his life, when he lets go of the outcome, the universe responds. Just two days after that toast, he received an email that the show wanted to use another song, “Chosen.”
“If I had one song in my entire catalog that I would like the public to know me by,” he says, “ . . . it would have been that song.”
Whoever won the episode would have his or her song played on the trailer of Hobbs & Shaw, a Fast & Furious spinoff. He didn’t win, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “Chosen” caught the ears of Warner Brothers and it was used in the trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah.
Nxumalo says that if he’d had the chance to sit down with God and was asked to choose which trailer he’d prefer his song accompany, his answer would have been the one he got. “God, you know me!” he exclaims.
What a gift he was given, he muses, to be recognized for a song that expresses who he is an artist. And now he hopes to share that feeling with other aspiring singer-songwriters. “I really hope all artists get to have some form of the universe saying ‘yes’ to them in that way,” he says.
The lake house he’s living in began as a plan to form an artists’ retreat, a “Muscle Shoals type of spot,” where he could cultivate songwriters, but when his Brooklyn landlord began rent renegotiations, he decided to make the move into the property.
Now, he’s got his sights set on bringing his knowledge and expertise to the local community through Pop College, his music education company that he dubs “The World’s Only Ivy League Songwriting School.” His workshops — which he hopes to host at Revolution Mill or Transform GSO — would include songwriting for artists, songwriting as team building for businesses and even songwriting therapy, a format he’s led before in New York.
The songwriting therapy model works so well, he says, because it “has a latent effect of turning something so painful into something so beautiful” and connection is built upon “shared identity and shared experience, but especially if that shared experience is shared suffering.”
As he looks out onto Lake Cammack, a head full of visions for his future, he says, “I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching out here, like, how do I want to spend my life?”
Almost answering himself, he says, “All I have to do is be me and that’s my unique selling point. Ya know, that’s it.”
Brandi Nicole Johnson
All roads lead back to Greensboro for this leadership development expert
From the time she was a little girl, Brandi Nicole Johnson was clear about what she wanted from life, to the point of planning her own birthday parties a year in advance. She’s a natural leader who knows what she wants and doesn’t settle for less. In fact, it’s that strong sense of self that first landed her in Greensboro in 2005.
An only child from Butner, Johnson dove into her college search with “really weird requirements.” She knew, “I didn’t want to share a bathroom . . . and I really preferred to be in a room by myself.” UNCG, it turned out, ticked off many of her boxes, and although she didn’t get a room to herself she was able to room with someone she knew, a fellow Girl Scout.
During her senior year at UNCG, Johnson had an opportunity to do a work study with the community organization, National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont Triad, which ended up launching her career in leadership development.
Unfortunately, illness took Johnson back to Butner for a few months, but she once again returned to Greensboro, this time with a full-time job as membership services manager for Girl Scouts Carolinas Peaks to Piedmont. She’d grown up in the organization and, over the years, has earned several accolades and awards which she attributes to how she came to understand how important leadership is.
“It’s in the [Girl Scout] commitment of making the world a better place,” says Johnson, “and I think for the world to be a better place we need to have better leaders.”
After a year-and-a-half at Girl Scouts, what Johnson thought was her “dream job” opened up at the Center for Creative Leadership. She’d first learned of the organization as a college junior and had “made it my mission” to one day work there, so she applied. While she didn’t land that role, the hiring manager was so impressed that she called Johnson and told her about another position that hadn’t as yet been posted. “Interested?” she wondered. “Heck, yes,” Johnson replied.
After spending much of her career at CCL, a role she’d dreamed of taking on — executive director — took her back to Butner. She left Greensboro for what she now calls “the most painful career experience” of her life.” After growing the organization and leading it through tragedy, she says, “I was tired, so I took four months off.” She watched Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, binged on Chick-fil-A waffle fries and finally said to herself, “Brandi, you need a job. You gotta figure this out.”
Never lacking gumption, Johnson founded her own people development brand, Estella Elaine (named after her grandmothers). She’s also worked for Red Hat, WeWork — she notes, “before we saw the documentaries on Apple TV!” — and DoorDash, all while still running her own business and working in an on-call capacity at CCL.
With her last corporate role, Johnson was supposed to move to New York, but relocation never came to fruition. Now, Johnson says, “many companies are saying the future of work is flexible” and she decided to take advantage of that.
Johnson began to weigh living options and found her way back to Greensboro, citing the cost of living as a big draw. She now works out of the comfort of her home. Plus, she says, “The people here have a different vibe. There’s a warmth that I love.”
In 2021, Johnson purchased her first house, a four-bedroom, which she jokes that she never needs to leave, surrounded by an abundance of her favorite restaurants that will deliver right to her front door.
And, as a bonus, the Gate City is ripe with opportunity for Johnson to put her skills to work. “I can see me becoming more of a philanthropist, getting involved in venture and whatever that looks like here, really thinking about how do we invest in talent development and growth in a meaningful way.”
A Crooked Media big city dweller seeks a more rounded life
Like many young people who are born and raised in one place, Elijah Cone couldn’t wait to venture out into the world upon graduating from Greensboro Day School in 2010. After living in the cosmopolitan cities of both New York and Los Angeles while beginning what would turn out to be a successful career in digital media, he ultimately chose to return to his childhood roots for lifestyle opportunities that could’t be found elsewhere.
Shortly after YouTube emerged as an online platform, Cone, then a teenager, learned how to edit video on his computer, tapping into a “trend that has only accelerated in the last 10 years.” Interest piqued, he earned a degree in film, cinema and video studies from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Since graduating in 2014, Cone has worked for both the NBA and Fox Sports, editing and producing video, but it’s his current role as Crooked Media’s director of digital development that enabled his return to Greensboro to be closer to his family.
As the fifth hire at Crooked Media, Cone has been with the brand and worked in its Los Angeles headquarters on podcasts such as Pod Save America almost from the inception. But in 2020, he says, the pandemic “made remote work a necessity for a lot of places and for my company for a long time,” which meant he could work as easily from Greensboro as anywhere else. “The [film editing] industry has changed so you can do it anywhere with your own tools.”
With a soon-to-be bride — also from North Carolina — by his side, he made the decision to move cross-country back to Greensboro in search of a more “rounded life.” Los Angeles offered “so much to do and see,” but Cone and his fiancé, Daixi, knew they wanted to start a family. Envisioning life with small children in California, he says, “You’re in this big, expensive city that’s great, but you can’t really experience it.”
“My hope for my life in Greensboro is much more family — not just starting my own,” says Cone, who recently bought a home with his now wife. He looks forward to spending time with his parents, Ed and Lisa. “My mom went through a very long battle with cancer and now she’s on the other end of that . . . [My dad] was there taking care of her. It feels like they’ve been through a lot.” Being back in the city where he was raised might one day, he says, provide the perk of “getting free childcare.”
While Cone has spent more than half of his career with Crooked Media, he says, “I have a great relationship with the hosts of the show [Pod Save America] and people that work at the company, but you can never tell.” If things changed tomorrow and the company wanted him back in Los Angeles, what then?
“What makes me confident I could continue to be successful is connections outside of Greensboro, people I’ve met and people who know what I can do, what my skill set is,” Cone says, adding that he could probably work remotely for one of them. “But I also know that there’s this path for potentially bringing what I do to people here.”
With Greensboro’s growing entrepreneurial spirit, Cone recognizes that he could start his own business that would benefit other small business-owners. “Giving people who are super talented around Guilford County an option to stay here and not have to go out of state would be great.”
But he also wants to give back “in the most literal sense, in the charitable, volunteer work capacity.” Cone, who is the great-great-great-nephew of Moses Cone acknowledges how Greensboro has been “incredible” to his family. Reflecting on his time away, he says, “It feels kind of selfish to get all the great things from this city, then pack up and leave.”
Plentiful parks, quality of family life and opportunities for business and philanthropy are just some of the reasons Cone felt the pull back to Greensboro. “Look, if you have a great option of living in a place like this where your life is well rounded,” says Cone, “why not try? Who knows if it’s the right call, but I am comfortable taking that bet.” OH
Cassie Bustamante is managing editor of O.Henry magazine.