As a college student, Pava LaPere saw images from the conflict in Syria and felt something shift in her soul.

The photos depicted young children trapped among the war-torn rubble, bleeding from wounds or not breathing at all. How unfair, how grotesque, she thought, that she inhabited the same world as they did but hers went on unscathed.

LaPere, on a path toward medical school at one of the nation’s elite universities, took stock of her life and its relative comforts and charged herself to investigate ways she could help narrow the global parity gap. She landed on money and power and using those two assets for good.

“I became obsessed with this idea of helping as many people as possible become entrepreneurs,” LaPere said during a TED Talk-style seminar hosted by the Johns Hopkins University in 2019 while she was a senior there. “Entrepreneurs look around and decide they are dissatisfied with the way things are. If we want to make change, we need to make more entrepreneurs.”

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By the time she graduated in 2019, LaPere had built three startup ventures dedicated to empowering young and aspiring business leaders. One of those, EcoMap Technologies, would become her career. The Baltimore-based startup company employs nearly 30 people and has secured contracts across the country and with major institutions. It aims to connect people with the networks, resources and social capital they need to progress in industries and communities that may be difficult to break into alone — tech, nonprofits, small business.

With both her personal profile and that of the company on the rise, LaPere developed a reputation in Baltimore and elsewhere as a celebrated go-getter. Hers was a success story featuring a compelling female lead who opened doors so others could step through them. But all that ended Monday when police identified her as the victim of a homicide that occurred on the rooftop of her Mount Vernon apartment building.

The details surrounding her death — caused by “blunt-force trauma,” police said — are as shocking as they are disturbing. Early Thursday, law enforcement officers took the man suspected of killing her into custody, ending a nearly three-day manhunt that ended at a train station in Bowie.

Named as part of Forbes’ prestigious “30 Under 30″ list in 2023, LaPere accomplished more than some achieve in a lifetime, those close to her say — and that’s what they’re choosing to focus on.

But her killing not only calls the future of EcoMap into question but also leaves a leadership vacuum on the front lines of Baltimore’s developing tech scene.

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“If you think about the machine full of gears, some turn everything else and some get turned. She was one of the gears that turn everything,” said Jamie McDonald, CEO of UpSurge Baltimore, an organization that advocates for and helps accelerate the work of tech and startup businesses. “At 26, she had the potential to be known around the globe as someone powering change in communities across the world.”

Over the past few years, tech and business leaders in Baltimore have sought to organize their resources and develop, recruit and retain startup companies in the city. Their attention has been spread across companies of all shapes and sizes, with special focus on those led by women and people of color. LaPere served as one of the city’s most vocal champions.

McDonald, a fierce promoter of the city’s entrepreneurs, said LaPere stood out for her commitment to social justice work in life and at work and for committing so wholly to her adopted home. She lived and breathed those values of equity and diversity. And, given another few years, McDonald added, she imagined EcoMap dominating the scene as a major city-based employer.

LaPere intentionally lived and worked in the heart of Baltimore, McDonald said, amid something of a mass exit by other major firms in search of sleeker or smaller spaces. She felt passionate about contributing to the growth of the city’s core, McDonald said, and using her platform to revive Howard Street in particular.

One of her many mentors, Delali Dzirasa, said LaPere operated at only one speed — all out. She had a stubborn edge to her that made her a respected leader and a human touch that made strangers feel close to her. “She had that confidence since day one, and it made you remember her,” said Dzirasa, CEO and founder of Fearless, a Baltimore-based software development company. “You met Pava, and you knew you met Pava.”

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The killing of Pava LaPere calls the future of EcoMap into question and leaves a leadership vacuum on the front lines of Baltimore’s developing tech scene. (khamdoArt)

Recounting her own trajectory, LaPere often spoke with a rare candor about the low points that beset the highs. Her success came at a cost. As a college student juggling three startup ventures, managing coursework and attempting to maintain a “modicum” of a social life, LaPere told the Hopkins TED Talk crowd that she once spent a full academic year sleeping only four nights a week. She skipped out early on exams to make business meetings, suffered panic attacks as she fired off emails and learned to stay awake in class by sitting on her foot so the pain would jolt her alert.

In an interview with The Baltimore Banner in May, she spoke of the challenges associated with breaking into an industry as a young woman, and the close calls EcoMap has had with shutting down due to unforeseen circumstances and her own errors.

“We almost kept dying,” she told The Banner. “Our story really represents the ideal, but also the challenges, with developing a company, especially one that’s Black-and-female led.”

Undeterred, she kept going.

“She was indefatigable; she was relentless; she was incredibly authentic,” said Nick Culbertson, another mentor and CEO at Protenus, a Baltimore-based health care analytics platform. “You could get to know Pava in a short amount of time because she said everything without a filter. You could really understand what she was getting at in a raw way.”

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This played well with investors, Culbertson noted, who became as enraptured with EcoMap as they did with her personally. “It’s unusual to be successful as an entrepreneur, and even more unusual to be young, and even more unusual to be female. It’s incredibly rare, and that’s why people were so incredibly inspired by her.”

Speaking during a vigil for his daughter Wednesday night, Frank LaPere described her as a workhorse, relentless in her goals and destined to be a high achiever.

“There was nothing that would get in her way,” he said.

Often through tears, Frank LaPere shared stories from Pava’s upbringing — like when she snuck out at night to ride her bike across Tuscon, Arizona, or when she used to take piano lessons. She once sent him a video of her playing on his birthday.

In a statement posted on social media Wednesday, the elder LaPere acknowledged his daughter’s effect on others. “Pava made an impact in every endeavor she undertook and on every life she touched.” The family asked for privacy as they grieve.

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LaPere said she often felt dogged by “imposter syndrome,” which she once noted “lingered over everything” as a student attempting to leave her mark. She learned to harness her fears and anxieties into outcomes: “Sometimes the only qualification you have to build something is the fact that you are the one who is willing to build it,” she said.

Even as she reaped the fruits of success, she never lost touch with her commitment to uplifting those around her, said Ken Malone, a mentor and founder of Early Charm Ventures, a Baltimore-based scientific venture firm. She led by example and others took note, Malone said.

She also never shied away from tough conversations, admitting mistakes and seeking to do better. “That’s what I remember — her passion, and her enthusiasm, and just genuinely being honest about making mistakes,” Malone said. “I’ll remember the wonderful, but very human, person that she was.”

Such honesty also drew friends and co-workers to her — including EcoMap co-founder Sherrod Davis, who became a close friend and confidant after a whirlwind three-year partnership as EcoMap found its stride.

Connected through Culbertson, Davis and LaPere joined forces at a tenuous point in the company’s history. EcoMap had been landing contracts and making money, but LaPere grappled to keep up with the growth. She’d scrape by on a well-timed wire transfer or a last-minute miracle.

Then came Davis, who took over the business and operational side of the company so that LaPere could do what she did best — be the visionary. They balanced each other, complemented one another’s skill sets and eventually formed a telepathic bond.

“She’s all gung-ho and let’s go and she’ll tell you what she means, and she means what she says, and she’s loud and excitable. And I’m subdued and thoughtful, and she would push the pace, and I would trail behind and put the pieces together,” Davis said.

Often, Davis said, his co-founder would begin conversations with “You’re going to hate this, but ...” and would pitch an idea that only she could concoct. “She didn’t care about her salary but about her impact,” he said. She deftly “evangelized” the product and what it could mean for the world with an authority well beyond her years.

The two had a six-year age gap that Davis, 32, said they bridged with shared commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. “This was more than just going to work. She wanted people to follow suit, and also have fun, and also be who you are unapologetically. She really valued that.”

She also stopped at nothing. Davis said LaPere — who bought her first car this year — once found her way home to Baltimore from a corporate beach retreat in Delaware by renting a moving truck when no other option panned out. “A unique thing about her was, whether it was easy or not, she’s going to make it happen,” he said.

It’s not yet clear what will happen to EcoMap. Davis said he and the staff are focusing on their grief and keeping things running day to day. He’s working through his pain.

If it were up to him, he’d keep going — like his friend.

“My belief is that Pava would want us to finish what she started,” he said. “I can only wake up every day and honor her life and her legacy.”

hallie.miller@thebaltimorebanner.com

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

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