The Office of Alumni Relations is proud of the successes of Smith School alumni throughout the world!
From entrepreneurship to marketing, accounting to logistics, and operations to consulting, Smith School alumni pursue careers in every field imaginable. Take a moment to read these interesting stories about your fellow Smith Terps!
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Sherika Ekpo, MBA ’09: Bringing Women to the Top with a Diverse Pipeline
An educator, connector and community builder. This is how Sherika Ekpo, MBA ’09 describes herself at the core. As the current Global Diversity & Inclusion Lead – Artificial Intelligence at Google, she works to create strategies that will build and sustain an inclusive work environment. She aims to increase the representation and promotion of Black and Latinx talent as well as female tech talent in the organization. Sherika focuses on building a representative hiring pipeline, creating promotion and retention strategies, and ensures that the culture of her business unit is inclusive.
Sherika had not always planned a career in human resources. In fact, she entered her full time MBA program at Smith with the intention of pursuing consulting work. Because of her people management skills and her natural instincts to coach others, Sherika’s career counselor at Smith helped her discover her love for HR and assisted her in landing an HR internship at GE. Additionally, a required HR class with Dr. Kudisch solidified her interest, and her strengths, in the field.
While at Smith, Sherika felt like she was introduced to extended family from all over the world. Her classmates opened her eyes to diverse perspectives and allowed her to engage in analyzing business problems using a global lens. Now in her HR career, Sherika ensures there is always a diverse pipeline of candidates.
Prior to working at Google, Sherika worked at the United States Digital Service. During her time with this government agency, the executive team was 60% female, and she fed off the strong, female energy. Here she discovered that women could have more of an impact in the tech field if HR remained strategic about hiring and retaining diverse employees.
However, she recognizes that her pipeline of future talent at Google is still heavily male-dominated, and she wants to overcome this challenge by encouraging more young females that tech and data science are fields for them, too. She encourages women to avoid limitations society may place on them and to stop being so critical of themselves.
“A lot of times women don’t want to raise our hands because we don’t want to be seen as being unable to deliver,” Sherika says. “But don’t be afraid to ask for help. Dream big and play to your strengths.”
She values the differences in the way men and women think and lead. And throughout her career, she has noticed that these varying perspectives allow for more balanced decision making. She knows how important it is to have women in leadership alongside men. Sherika knows women can inspire not just other women, but all people and professionals by celebrating successes.
“Inspiration often comes from seeing the accomplishments of other women,” she says. "If she can do it, then I can too! Once [women] succeed and get to the top, we must remember to reach back and pull others forward."
Peter Cannito, MBA ’01 always knew he wanted to be a U.S. Marine since an early age. His father was a veteran of the Vietnam War, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps and proudly serve. After college, Peter was commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps in 1994. When Peter was reaching the end of his tour, serving as a logistics officer at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California, he started planning his next steps and decided to look into attending a business school for his MBA.
With an undergraduate degree in Finance, and knowing he ultimately wanted to end up in the industry, earning an MBA felt like the best transition for him from the military to the business world. And he felt Maryland Smith brought together the right combination of core business, technology and entrepreneurship educational resources. The Dingman Center in particular stood out for him at the time as one of the first of its kind programs to help prospective students gain direct experience with the start-up community.
Once at Smith, Peter sought out Rudy Lamone, who is also a veteran, to be his mentor. That was the beginning of a relationship that still persists to this day! “It was the height of the dot com bubble, and starting high growth, venture backed companies was still a relatively new career to pursue. Smith was at the forefront of educating a new generation of entrepreneurs, and I was taking a new venture finance course that exposed me to a world of opportunities that could make my ideas a reality,” said Cannito. “It was a very exciting and formative time for me.”
Peter incubated his first company, Onsyss Mobile Computing, which built software for handheld computers, while at Smith; culminating in May 2001 when he won the UMD Business Plan Competition under the emerging technologies category that resulted in some seed capital for his fledgling venture.
After graduating with his MBA, these formative experiences eventually led Peter on a path toward his most recent position as CEO at Polaris Alpha, a private equity financed, high technology, national security and defense contractor. Throughout his career, however, he never strayed too far from the veteran community and the importance of service. While working at Polaris Alpha, Peter teamed up with a military family focused non-profit called TAPS – Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, that provides assistance to those who have lost a loved one in the line of duty. Polaris Alpha worked with TAPS to start a golf tournament fundraiser that raises money from businesses in the Aberdeen, Maryland community for the families of our fallen heroes.
After leading the sale of Polaris Alpha to a strategic buyer, Peter is now currently an Operating Partner at a private equity firm, Aero Equity Industrial (AEI) Partners, where he informs investments in companies in the national security space. AEI is a unique investor that combines professionals with finance and engineering backgrounds, which allows them to leverage operationally relevant experience when selecting and managing their portfolio.
When asked about the overall outlook for this industry, Peter said: “It’s positive. The threat to cyber is (unfortunately) growing, and the two biggest trends driving this industry are the persistent global threat to cyber and the space domain.” He also acknowledged that buyer behavior is changing and businesses have to transform quickly to stay relevant. This also provides new opportunities for startups and allows the government to become more agile in keeping up with a rapidly changing technology landscape.
With 25 years of experience in the national security industry, Peter advises students to “Keep an open mind to the diversity of perspectives that come from customers, employees and other stakeholders. We all have blind spots, and the best leaders surround themselves with people that can challenge their thinking. There is no monopoly on good ideas, and sometimes they come from places you least expect.” He also emphasizes the need to give back. “Leadership is about service,” he adds, “The most rewarding moments in my career have always begun with an opportunity to serve others.”
As a woman in the C-Suite of a multi-national financial services group, Kerry-Ann Betton Stimpson, MBA ’01 is passionate about being a part of any conversation that helps bring about gender balance in the workforce. This has always been a passion of hers, as Stimpson grew up in Jamaica, where approximately 80 percent of undergraduate and graduate-level students are female, and women make up the majority of the national workforce!
After earning her bachelor’s degree in management studies in her home country of Jamaica, Stimpson came to the United States to pursue an MBA. With the proximity to D.C., nearby family members and the quality of the MBA program, she knew the Smith School was the perfect match. While at Smith, Stimpson immersed herself in not only her education but also the cultural experiences provided to her through her peers.
When offering advice to current Smith students, Stimpson says: “I highly recommend students take full advantage of all professional and personal development opportunities the school offers. Don’t just go to class and go home. Get involved, give back and participate.”
She still recalls great memories with her Smith professors, especially her first marketing professor Judy Frels and is extremely thankful for the multitude of projects she challenged herself with throughout her studies. Outside of her own coursework, she kept herself busy by serving as a teaching assistant for a business communications class, joining the Black MBA Association and volunteering with Greater DC Cares.
Her only regret during her time at the Smith School? “I didn’t leverage my alumni network enough. There’s nothing like building a network of alumni and hearing about their career journey.”
Nevertheless, Stimpson’s own career is extremely successful. She returned home to Jamaica after earning her MBA. “With my exposure at Smith and having an international MBA, I was in a job within the first four weeks. I really cannot complain about my career trajectory,” Stimpson said, as she thinks back to her first job, post-MBA, ultimately moving up to Senior Marketing Manager. Today, Stimpson serves as the Group Chief Marketing Officer for JMMB Group where she’s accountable for the marketing strategy for JMMB’s portfolios in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago. The JMMB Group is one of the leading financial groups in the Caribbean, and though men tend to dominate the CEO roles in the financial services field in Jamaica, the company was co-founded by a woman and its board of directors comprises of 40 percent women.
Outside of her career and family life, Stimpson plays her part in supporting the development of the next generation of women. She counsels teenagers at a one-week summer camp, and as part of the We Inspire Women and We Inspire Girls movement in Jamaica, she gives motivational talks to high school females on how to love themselves and live their best lives.
Even as a little kid, Devin Regan ’09 had an entrepreneurial spirit. “I sold the valuable Pokémon trading cards to shops. I charged my classmates for drawings I made. I mowed lawns.” He knew from an early age he wanted to become an entrepreneur and start his own company.
Fast forward a few years, when it came time for college, he still had this same mindset, along with an interest in working with people and a desire to learn the ins and outs of business management. Coming from a self-proclaimed “big UMD-loving family,” Devin enrolled in the University of Maryland and knew the Smith School would make him feel right at home.
While navigating his way through various business courses, Devin found marketing to be the major best suited for him and his career goals. He was then thrilled to learn of the sports commerce and culture minor that the University offered, and even more thrilled about the Smith School Sports Management Fellows Program. Devin was an avid sports fan and ran track at Maryland, so the Fellows Program connected all of his personal and professional interests.
After graduating, Devin worked in a number of marketing and sales positions until he finally took the entrepreneurial leap in 2016 and co-founded Maverick VR, a virtual reality entertainment provider. Devin became infatuated with virtual reality when he tried a demo at an event, and he knew he had to get into the VR field. Devin and his business partner explored a few business models until agreeing on acting as an event service provider.
“The events industry was a perfect match for virtual reality because it provides guests with a unique and memorable experience. There’s a great need for that in the events space,” Devin said.
And that’s one of the biggest pieces of advice Devin has to offer Smith students or alumni looking to start their own business. Make sure there is a need for your product and that the product or service is valuable. “Make sure your product is truly valuable and that you’re not just trying to get eyes on something. Have clients lined up before you launch so you know there is already credibility and sales coming in.”
Maverick VR has been in business for two years and has served countless clients, including our very own University of Maryland for a Freshman Welcome event at Stamp earlier this year. Devin is excited to see Maverick VR continue to grow and can’t wait to see what’s in store for the virtual reality industry in the coming years.
A published author in fiction and poetry, a law school graduate, a recruiter with 16 years of experience and now, an entrepreneur. Elizabeth McCourt ’91 has achieved a lot since graduating from Maryland Smith, and she can tell you firsthand, careers do not always follow a linear path
Elizabeth attended the University of Maryland because of her interest in business and politics. While in school, she discovered she was also a skilled writer, so she took a variety of literature classes in addition to her business classes. She even worked on Capitol Hill her senior year. But after discovering the multitude of opportunities within other corporations throughout her 300- and 400-level courses, she landed her first job out of college at Morgan Stanley.
With politics and law still an interest in the back of her mind, Elizabeth earned her law degree and worked as an attorney for four years. However, with the help of her undergraduate business degree, she eventually found her place in recruiting. With 16 years of recruiting experience, she came to realize that thread throughout the entirety of her career was her desire to coach people and help elevate their skills. Because of this, she founded the McCourt Leadership Group, which is a global executive leadership coaching and consulting firm.
“Entrepreneurship can happen slowly and develop over time. It doesn’t have to be this big ‘all at once’ thing,” Elizabeth says. She took her time to slowly develop her business into what it is today, and she’s proud of and grateful for the opportunities she’s given to mentor and inspire people. And she doesn’t forget where her foundation came from. She often comes back to Smith to connect with students and alumni through class panels and webinar opportunities. Her biggest piece of advice for Smith students is to take classes outside of your comfort zone. “Take business courses that interest you, but also take a course that strikes a wild hair. Language. Shakespeare. Take something off the typical path to flex your brain in a different way.”
For Elizabeth, it was these non-typical (as a business major) literature courses that helped her become a published author of Sin in the Big Easy, a mystery novel. She is currently working on her second book about leadership development from the nonlinear path, which reminds all professionals that you don’t have to do what is expected of you, and you can always craft your own path.
Frank Goertner, EMBA ’17 is serving double duty as both a Smith alum and a Smith employee! He recently joined the Smith School as Director of Military and Veteran Affairs in August of 2018, just one year after graduating from the business school himself. After earning an MA in International Relations from the University of Maryland (more Terp pride!), he embarked on a career as a Naval Officer where he worked his way to the rank of Commander
Growing up, Frank always asked himself “How will I serve” not “Will I serve” this country, and he quickly learned that the U.S. Navy offered the greatest opportunities to achieve three of his goals: Continue learning new skills, see the world and learn to fly. His 21 years of service involved roles as a naval aviator, foreign area officer, personnel chief, political-military affairs advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and leading analysis in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on future Navy missions and requirements.
As he neared retirement from the Navy, Frank, still eager to expand his knowledge and skillset, sought out an EMBA. He knew Smith had a great reputation, and to him, Smith felt like the obvious choice. “Smith and the University just felt like home to me,” said Frank. “And the school had the most diverse and most inclusive environment for cohort-based study offered by any business school I considered.”
With an undergraduate, masters and executive MBA degree, along with 21 years of service with the U.S. Navy, Frank then decided to explore the next step in his career. He looked at positions in the private sector, public sector consulting and government agencies, but was thrilled to see this opportunity pop up at the Smith School. “I stepped back and thought this is the perfect opportunity for me to stay engaged with the veteran community,” Frank said. “There was also the added bonus that I would be able to work with young people who are still studying and eager to make a difference in the world.”
Being in his role just eight weeks, he knows this is where he belongs, and he believes the Smith School has everything it needs to be the country’s premier business school for military and veteran students. He just wants to leave current Smith students with one piece of advice: “There are a million and one ways to serve your country and your community. Explore as many as you can, and respect them all.”
In May of 2007, Svetlana Saitsky crossed the stage to receive her diploma. After a full and enriching four years at the University of Maryland, Svetlana was graduating from the Smith School with a BS in marketing and a job offer straight out of college. However, when the Dean asked if she was excited to start her new job, she replied: “Actually, I’m not taking the job.” Svetlana wanted to see more of the world, so she traveled for 6 months before beginning her first job at TransPerfect, which was the world’s largest private translation company at the time. With a solid business background, Svetlana hit the ground running.
Four months into her role as an Account Executive, the company needed someone to run a satellite sales office in Sydney, Australia, and Svetlana jumped at the opportunity. Even as one of the newest and youngest employees, she hit the goal requirements and was offered the opportunity. She ultimately left TransPerfect, because it wasn’t a culture fit. Looking for a less cutthroat culture, Svetlana then moved on to work for companies like AdRoll, and Robert Half International, and soon after on a short project for Google, which was her dream company while studying at Smith. Still not feeling “at home,” she began doing her own consulting work, served as a contributing writer and photographer for various blogs and publications, and took several positions with a handful of companies. She even ended up back at Google X as part of the team to launch Google Glass.
After navigating through careers, Svetlana has finally landed her dream job of corporate coaching full-time. It wasn’t until one of her own bosses told her that she needed to work for herself and was really meant to coach others until she took the leap. She now works with both individuals and corporations and coaches managers and executives on being positive leaders, creating a happy workplace and the importance of “mental wealth.”
Svetlana is very grateful for the University of Maryland and the Smith School for helping her achieve happiness in her career. Identifying as an artist, but wanting a strong business foundation, Svetlana discovered creativity and business actually mix quite well. “Creativity is everywhere. It’s in how you run a meeting and in the colors you use in a PowerPoint. Artistry is a way of expression, and that’s what the business world needs. That’s what makes companies like Google and Apple so innovative.”
Some of her favorite classes at Smith were design marketing, international business and strategic management, taught by Gosia Langa-Basit, who became an important mentor for Svetlana and with whom Svetlana still keeps in touch with today. In fact, one of Svetlana’s biggest pieces of advice for current Smith students is to get a mentor. “Never be scared to tell people you admire them, and ask them what they did,” she says. She also advises students: “Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t.” She recognizes her story as “different,” but is glad to have always stayed true to herself to land the career of her dreams.
Katie Praske Brandt ’01, now works as a senior advisor at ARG. The Virginia-based IT consulting and brokerage firm helps over 3,000 companies and non-profits make the best technology decisions for their business. The company was founded in 1991 by her father Gregory Praske ’77, who is also a Smith graduate. Prior to joining her father’s company, Katie spent nearly 15 years at Maersk leading a variety of corporate projects and customer supply chains. Every transaction is international when you work at Maersk, the world’s largest container ship operator. “Supply chain management gives you a really literal illustration of global business. Each shipment touches at least two countries. You can’t do anything in isolation.”
Her education at Smith allowed her to work on projects with students from diverse backgrounds and cultures, which prepared her for Maersk, a truly international organization where most people work in their second language. The job required Katie to function as a type of translator. She took corporate directives from Maersk HQ in Copenhagen and explained them to front-line workers at ports around the world. She also carried information back the other direction. “I spoke fewer languages than most people at Maersk, but I did the most translating,” says Katie. “I helped people in different departments and at different levels understand each other.”
Cultural and language barriers added complexity. But Katie built relationships of trust by focusing on communication, empathy and mutual respect. She says that’s what it means to have a global mindset. “People all have the same basic needs, but they’re under different pressures and have access to different types of information. You have to pause and see impacts from different perspectives.” In that way Katie still functions as a translator, bringing people together and building understanding. Relationship building gives Katie confidence to talk to people from any background or industry. Many people want what’s comfortable, but Katie says her global mindset pushes her to new frontiers. “You can’t be in a position that’s truly international and has global impact if you’re not willing to work outside your familiar surroundings.”
Having held multiple positions at Maersk across five different locations for a span of 15 years, Katie became versed in a wide range of job functions and expanded the breadth and depth of her talents among several departments. She gained invaluable skills that equipped her with the experience which now helps her in the role of a strategic growth advisor at ARG.
Katie was part of the QUEST program while she was at Smith, where she consulted for government entities and companies, which gave her practical business, project management, and teamwork experience. With the benefit of perspective, that exposure propelled her to reach for the variety of opportunities that were available to her, and not limit herself. This summer, Katie will return to Smith to teach a supply chain management course for the online MBA program.
John Jacobs '81, former Executive Vice President at Nasdaq, now retired, is involved in a number of projects including academia, consulting, and board work. With over 30 years of his professional life dedicated to Nasdaq, John created and launched "QQQ," one of the first Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), among the most successful and widely traded financial products to ever hit the market. A visionary leader, he was instrumental in growing the once 80-person company to a globally recognized brand. Retired but not slowing down, he shares his expertise through teaching, upholds a rigorous fitness routine, and most importantly, spends quality time with his family. Having been at the helm of Nasdaq's index business and as one of the most influential trailblazers in the financial world, John's humility, passion, and authenticity is truly inspirational.
At the very beginning of John's three decade long Nasdaq journey, he served as a qualifications analyst, reviewing the financial statements of public companies. As a graduate of the University of Maryland's accounting program, John had a solid education foundation. His accounting classes prepared him to be technically proficient, his marketing classes taught him to think about problems differently, and his finance classes tied it altogether and helped him understand the flow of business. John knew his way around financial statements, and was thoroughly prepared for the job. John remarks, "if you graduated from Maryland's business school, you could compete with anyone, but you had to be proactive to earn success."
There are numerous opportunities and career growth when moving both horizontally and vertically in a company. There were times in John's career where he had to make a decision about whether to make a lateral move, or climb the next rung on the corporate ladder. In most cases, taking the lateral job allowed him to be fluent in a variety of disciplines and opened doors to new possibilities. John explains, an upward trajectory and horizontal growth are not mutually exclusive and can complement each other very well. Early on, he learned to focus on the job and not the money, "it's about the opportunity itself, if you keep looking at it that way, you will acquire invaluable skills and expand your horizon. Money will take care of itself over time."
A mentor to many, John attributes his career success in part with having mentors along the way to help navigate his journey. He emphasized the importance of seeking out the opinions of others, and asking for constructive feedback to highlight problems and create a plan to improve or resolve it. It's okay to mistakes as long as you figure out what went wrong, and vow to do better next time. One of the biggest takeaways from John's career was that he learned not to reinvent the wheel. You are faced with a multitude of problems during your career, and while the problem may be different, the nature of the challenge is the same. Ask people for advice; it will provide perspective and an idea of how to approach and solve the problem. John also encourages leveraging Smith's alumni network to reach out to people for connections, and by the same token, pay it forward. Always look for ways to add value - it goes a long way.
In the workplace, we are trained to be analytical and to problem-solve. This is an extremely valuable skill to have, but the flip side is that possibilities are confined to carefully calculated outcomes. "The best ideas are the ones where you don't limit yourself to why you can't do it." Your path will continue to pivot, but as long as you stay the course, and remain flexible yet steadfast, you won't end up too far from your goal. For John, being a fearless Terp means you need to have an idea of where you want to be and find a way to get there. Know that there will be some sort of disruption, but keep at it because perseverance pays off. Be prepared for opportunities to surface at the most unusual times so that you turn them into successful outcomes.
With a strong interest in social impact, Sagar Doshi '15, a Smith finance major, created his own major with the IVSP department, Social Innovation and Philanthropic Management. Sagar began his journey in social impact as part of Social Innovation Fellows, a year-long program that explores social and environmental change through business, created and sponsored by the Center for Social Value Creation (CSVC). In his sophomore year, Sagar took this interest to new heights. He traveled to Honduras with ambitions of ending extreme poverty and violence by building a school in an at-risk community. Together, Sagar Doshi and Anderson Sloan '15, also a Smith Terp and currently at IBM, continued this effort through entering the Do Good Challenge in 2014, where they won the first place award and secured $8,500 to put towards funding an entire school.
Now a Strategy and Operations Consultant at Deloitte, Sagar channels his passion for social impact into his job, spearheading education and sustainability projects at Deloitte. Outside of their daily jobs, Sagar and Anderson launched a new non-profit initiative in March 2017, One Thousand Schools. This organization, in partnership with Students Helping Honduras, brings young professionals together on a one-week service project to Honduras to build a school for a community in need. On their first pilot trip back in July 2017, thirteen young professionals traded in their cell phones and laptops for shovels and gloves, rolled their sleeves up, and got to work. They got their hands dirty with moving cinder blocks, making cement, and flatting out the classroom floor of dirt every day at the work site.
After returning from their trip, they worked tirelessly to fundraise for the school they started building, Escuela Marina Yolanda Melendez, and recently reached their goal of $25,000, which will fund the completion of construction. School is scheduled to start in late January 2018, and will house both day and evening classes in three classrooms for 135 kids. Sagar is looking forward to visiting the school when they go back for their second service trip in February 2018. Knowing that he's part of a greater undertaking to provide access to quality education, however much, propels his commitment of making a meaningful difference in the lives of those less fortunate.
What's so remarkable is that there were people from different walks of life and professions that went on this trip. Not having hot water for a week, consultants, teachers, and lab workers alike, labored day in day out. Sagar made a thought provoking comment about this project, that he hopes to avoid the stigma of #SaveTheWorld, but rather, going forward with the intention of learning about a world problem and doing the best you can to help towards a solution.
For Sagar, being a fearless Terp means taking on difficult endeavors with determination, but also learning from the drawbacks. When you have an idea, be receptive to feedback because there's always more to learn and gaps to fill. Sagar talks about how his education from Smith gave him the experience and skills sets to create a business plan, think through strategy, and plan out tangible steps that he needs to accomplish his goals. The courses that he took has enabled him to make better decisions and given him a different perspective that has been critical to the success of his ventures. And he's been 'paying it back.' Sagar has been a champion for the Deloitte mentor-partnership between Deloitte and CSVC's Change the World Program, and has even returned to UMD as a featured guest judge of the Do Good Challenge. Sagar is on a quest to do more and in search of social impact and sustainability projects that he is passionate about.
He hopes to inspire more people with shared passions to join him in building One Thousand Schools! The next service trip is February 17-24, 2018, and there are still spots available - click here to learn more and sign up. You can also reach out to Sagar directly via email.
"Get out there and don't be afraid to fail." That's what fearless ideas means to Richard Blackman, MBA '84, a 22-year veteran of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and experienced entrepreneur.
Richard, a double Terp, received his bachelor's degree in psychology, and a few years later, his master's in business administration.
It was through his education at the Smith School that Richard gained the confidence do anything, and made him an indispensable civil servant at the EPA. There, he led a seven-person team that oversaw the entire agency's budget, developed reports for the US Office of Management and Budget, and fielded congressional inquiries related to spending.
He became the resident expert on all budgetary issues, and after numerous hours of answering internal questions about the process, he identified opportunities to innovate and improve office operations. Richard developed a creative and engaging training on the budgetary process, and quickly realized he loved it. He became so good at it, the agency made it part of his job description.
Earlier this year, Richard retired from the EPA. Now in his second act, he took his passion for training and joined the Smith School's executive communication team where he helps MBAs prepare for their next careers. His goal is to help pass on a legacy that allows student to "find something they love to do and succeed."
A double Terp, Steve Washington earned his bachelor's in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland, and went on to pursue his master's in electrical engineering at Howard University before returning to UMD for his Executive MBA degree. With a knack for solving problems and keen analytical skills, Steve took a strong interest in software development, and became a civilian contractor for the DoD, supporting national defense agencies. Continuously learning and always seeking new challenges, he dove into the commercial sector after six years of working in the defense sector, where he gained hands-on experience in internet protocols, networking and web development.
In 1999, Steve started an electrical contracting company, building smart homes systems and solutions to be internet and wireless ready, it was the early phases of installing technology for the home. Business quickly took off and he secured several large contracts with home builders and local government contracts such as structured wiring for a prison in Maryland. Fast forward five years, the company had achieved considerable success, but Steve didn't stop there. He jumped at the opportunity when a friend from his DoD contracting days reached out to him about starting a company together, leveraging predictive analytics to improve business decisions and operations for businesses. Together, they started a predictive analytics firm, and scored contracts with big names such as Intel, Sysco, Kraft and Heinz.
As the company steadily grew, Steve wanted a solid business foundation to help him make better decisions to take the company to the next level, and that's what led him to the EMBA program at Smith in 2015. He returned to the classroom to fortify his skills, exchange insights with his peers, and was inspired by new ideas that he took back to his company. He learned a lot about himself through feedback from classmates, self-assessment tests, and introspection. He realized there is no set formula for success and that there is more than one way to reach your goal, understanding this gave him confidence. Part of being successful comes from good decision making, but also not second guessing yourself. When you doubt yourself, it holds you back. Steve explained that you are always making the best decision you can with the information you have at that particular time.
When asked about fearless ideas, Steve stressed the importance of being bold in the face of uncertainty. Even in the smallest of victories, it instills a sense of confidence, and small wins amount to big accomplishments over time. He also talked about how he has overcome his obstacles by trying new things that are outside his comfort zone, and even from a negative trial, you learn something. Having that perspective will give you that extra boost of confidence to go for it. Believe that you have what it takes, don't be afraid to hypothesize, test, and learn from mistakes. To keep up in this fast paced world and what sometimes feels like swimming against the current, adaptability and staying agile is key.
While his ventures keep him extremely busy, Steve is committed to giving back to his community in Baltimore, where home is. With STEM programs and technology jobs on the rise, he shares his expertise and knowledge by volunteering his time to tutor his community in software applications. He hopes to help build skillsets that will open doors to a wider array of opportunities, and show more people that with the right training and tools, software development jobs are accessible.
If the Smith School had a master's program for selling, Sherri Locke, MBA '82 could be a professor. After completing her undergraduate degree in French Literature at New York University and spending time in Europe, she enrolled at the Smith School because she was looking for something different in life.
In her last semester at Smith, she was asked to intern at IBM in a sales position. Sherri had no prior sales experience, and it was not what she expected.
She quickly learned sales was a sophisticated art form, and her training at Smith was key to success. She feels Smith taught her the fundamentals, like clear, concise business writing and decision analytics, that enabled her to meet client needs.
Fearless ideas are critical in business, although Sherri pointed out that organizations are often slow to adopt creative solutions. In her most recent position at Kaiser Permanente, she found a warm embrace for innovative ideas. There, she started a dog therapy program to help patients in recovery programs at over 20 medical center locations. Sherri's therapy dogs have helped patients in the infusion, internal medicine, and adolescent behavioral health departments. Although she has recently retired from her day job at Kaiser, she continues to work with the dog therapy program. The work has been extremely rewarding, and Sherri is now looking to expand her program to all Kaiser Permanente locations in the DC region.
What separates the top performers from everyone else? According to Smith graduate and Googler, Arhaan Saksena, MS '15, it's a focus on the big picture. "Always ask yourself, what is the larger problem that you're trying to solve?" It's crucial to define the overarching goal first, and work smartly to resolve the issue. Otherwise, you will end up spending time and resources on tasks that may not be aligned with the actual problem. It's about asking the right questions to tackle the right problems.
Prior to attending Smith, Arhaan obtained his bachelor's in computer engineering and worked for the multinational financial corporation American Express, and one of the "Big Four" accounting firms, Ernst and Young. With a few years of technical expertise under his belt, he recognized it was important to understand the impact of organizational decisions through business lens, which led him to Smith. During his time at Smith, he found his niche and leveraged opportunities that enabled him to build the skills necessary to be an expert in technical product sales. Arhaan was very involved with the efforts of building the Smith community through organizing social and networking events. Additionally, he collaborated with industry leaders to bring professional development workshops to Smith graduate students.
Arhaan's strong technical background, coupled with Smith's Masters of Information Systems program, provided a well-rounded education that helped hone his business acumen. This laid the foundation for Arhaan's career. He has always gravitated towards the business side of things, and the formal education allowed him to apply his knowledge and technical skills in a non-technical role. Arhaan stressed the importance of going off the beaten path and finding ways to set yourself apart. Ask yourself the question: What makes your brand different?
In addition to its global-perspective, Arhaan believes what makes Smith unique is a culture that is never satisfied with the status quo. To him, fearless ideas means the willingness to take risks and not being afraid to fail. Upon graduation, Arhaan was faced with the decision of taking a secure job from a big global firm in New York or pursuing an opportunity at a unicorn in its early stages in Silicon Valley. He took a leap of faith, packed up and moved to the west coast to work at Apttus, where he took on a lot of responsibilities and grew immensely in a short period time of time, which ultimately paved the way for landing his job at Google. Today, as a sales engineer, he helps enterprise customers transform their businesses and enable innovation through Cloud Computing. Forbes estimates the Global Cloud spending to reach $390B by 2020, Arhaan is fearless in the face of this opportunity and all the challenges it presents.
The pursuit of fearless ideas is what makes Smith School graduates unique. It is the defining characteristic of our culture, and that fearlessness makes it easy to spot a Terp beyond the walls of Van Munching Hall.
One of our fearless graduates, Michael Dobslaw '01, a senior manager at Ernst and Young, who, in his free time, is pursuing his passion for history and augmented reality through the development of his mobile application, reVistor.
Michael grew up not far from the University of Maryland, and from an early age, developed an interest in US history. He would often visit historical battlefields, such as Malvern Hill in Virginia, and wonder what it would be like to be in the middle of the action.
While an Honor's student at the University of Maryland, Michael obtained many of the skills necessary for him to be successful in his career and allowed him to follow his passion. He leveraged his project management experience and training to develop reVistor, an application that recreates historical events using augmented reality. For example, one of the sites currently live is a reenactment of first flight, which can be accessed on reVistor when in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina at the Wright Brothers Memorial.
At this time, reVistor supports only a few sites in the United States. However, with Michael's innovative and entrepreneurial spirit, the application has scaled at an exponential rate.
Michael's goal is straightforward. He wants to make history before he can teach it. He is well on his way toward achieving this goal!
Katie Breen remembers advising her classmates to "do things that are scary" as the commencement speaker for the Smith School of Business in May 2012 when she earned her degree in marketing. Doing the "scary" thing is exactly what she did to land her in her current position as Marketing Manager at a start-up called Shinesty, a company that sells outrageous, fun and wild clothing.
After deciding she didn't belong in the cube farm world of corporate agencies, Katie was hired as the eighth employee at Shinesty in 2015, just six months after the company's creation. In her time with Shinesty, Katie's position has been ever-evolving, and she's been involved with everything from search engine programming to marketing project management to running the internship program. "I've had to figure things out myself and establish processes from the bottom up because the rules were totally unwritten," she says.
While at Smith, Katie's digital marketing classes laid the groundwork for her career, and taking classes in operations, finance and accounting provided her with a comprehensive perspective of businesses and the intricacies and inner workings of a company's operation. With this foundation, she took the risk to jump into the startup world, and she couldn't imagine herself anywhere else.
Katie has helped Shinesty grow tremendously, and the company has now more than tripled in size at 30 employees. Just recently, she and nine of her colleagues, were filmed for six weeks by MTV2 on working as a millennial entrepreneur. When asked what advice she would offer current Smith students, Katie says, "Follow your career interests, but follow them in a way that will lead you to the work environment where you will be most happy, even if they aren't typical or traditional. Sure there may be higher risks at startups, and you'll need to be hungrier for those opportunities, but for me, there's a much higher reward."
LaKisha Greenwade, MBA '11 known by her clients, followers, and peers as Coach L, is the founder and chief executive officer of Lucki-Fit, a platform that empowers individuals to look and feel their best in all aspects of life to become lucky in life and business.
A 2011 graduate of the University of Maryland's part-time MBA program, LaKisha's pursuit of her fearless ideas have been the driving force behind her success. While balancing a full-time career working as a human relations consultant to the federal government, the rigor of a part-time MBA program, and other extracurricular activities, she recognized her role as a social influencer and passion for leveraging technology for personal development. This revelation led her to start her first business.
Launched in early 2016, Lucki-Fit provides a variety of services and events for leaders and entrepreneurs. Two of Lucki-Fit's flagship events are The GLAM Retreat – an exclusive retreat for leaders and influencers to practice self-care, development, and networking – and GLAM Tech – a platform for innovators and entrepreneurs to connect, collaborate, and design fashionable, wearable tech.
LaKisha adamantly believes in the power of one's personal brand. If ever given the opportunity to teach a course at the University of Maryland's Smith School, she would focus on the importance of developing and managing a personal brand and best practices for networking.
She's an innovator, entrepreneur, social innovator, and most of all, fearless. Her message to students and Smith alumni is simple: take advantage of the endless opportunities on campus and don't be afraid to chase your passion.
LaKisha was recently inducted into the prestigious Forbes Coaching Council and will be speaking at the 2017 SXSW Festival.
Joshua L. Rosenthal graduated from the Smith School in 2007 with his MBA and his MS in Operations Research. During his time as a student, Josh recognized the need for alumni and students to connect both virtually and face-to-face, so he launched one of the first online communities at the Smith School – SmithPeeps. From 2007-2015, SmithPeeps served as a conduit for students and alumni to share ideas and jobs, answer questions, and to organize in-person and online events.
Josh works as a Director of Solution Architecture in the enterprise software industry and lives with his wife and family in Friendship Heights.
If you were a student again, is there anything you would do differently?
I would relate all course assignments towards a single job role or industry niche. Each month, I would blog an article applying what I learned. Posting articles would have increased my visibility while giving me relevant feedback from industry enthusiasts. Also, I would have taken even more time to network with classmates.
What is the first website you access in the morning?
Reddit.com/r/RealEstateTechnology and other subreddits, followed by LinkedIn.com. Since the late 1990s, I have been getting my news and information online, often from social media.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A un-retired entrepreneur.
How did you become interested in your field?
I help salespeople in the software industry sell enterprise products by clearing technical roadblocks presented by potential customers. I became interested in this niche because I wanted to operate in a space where I could marry my two childhood interests, business and technology.
By joining startup companies and those in transition, I have collected best practices in what I call “straddling the [enterprise software] sale” – pre-sales & solutions architecture followed by customer success management. I have been applying my expertise independently and now as a Director of Solution Architecture for an innovative software security product.
What does the phrase “Fearless Ideas” mean to you? How does a Smith degree help alumni develop Fearless Ideas?
“Fearless Ideas” is the thinking that allows someone to take a step beyond the boundaries of the current mindset. However, ideas are only the first step in an entrepreneurial journey. After all, the value of an idea is dependent upon its implementation.
As a young professional, I embarked upon my first entrepreneurial endeavor, InteractiveInstruction – video that updates itself upon the viewer’s interaction and builds a profile about them. The idea later proved itself successful, but not in the way that I implemented it. I didn’t bridge the current thinking to the value I was offering potential customers. As a result, I repeatedly faced rejections such as, “video will never be big on the Internet”.
Recovering from that experience, my degrees from Smith provided a framework from which I can better assess the opportunity and my implementation.
What is something people don’t know about you?
I founded James Madison University’s Breakdance Club, which now hosts one of the largest annual competitions in the United States. Founding a first-of-its-kind university club gave me the chance to perform with celebrities, represent my university internationally, and to support the local Boys & Girls Club and other charities.
What advice would you give to current Smith students?
Work backwards. Determine where you want to be and then map the steps to get there. As you follow your plan, subsequent steps will appear more clearly to you. In addition, your plan will help you assess distractions as they arrive. And if you find yourself late to this idea, remember that “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
What does being a Smith School alumnus mean to you?
Being an alumnus of the Smith School means being part of an international professional network. Smith alumni are leaders and doers in the Washington, D.C. region and throughout the world.
Seble Alemayehu, MBA ’12 and Felekech (Fei) Biratu, MBA ’13 started as high school friends, and after a similar journey through life, a move around the globe and two MBA degrees from the Smith School, they now are proud co-founders of Yenaé, an online-based, high-end fashion jewelry brand.
Alemayehu and Biratu grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and interestingly moved to the U.S. on the same plane after completing their high school. Once in the US, they went their separate ways, each earning a bachelor’s degree from different universities in different states. Alemayehu earned her degree in business administration and landed an internship at EY in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while Biratu earned her degree in applied economics and finance and worked at United Healthcare Group.
Both women then pursued their professional careers in the Washington, DC area, where they found themselves living in the same city since they had left their home, Ethiopia. Alemayehu went into federal government consulting and Biratu worked as a financial analyst at AOL.
Both women then decided to apply to the Smith School Part-Time MBA Program. After a fulfilling few years at the Smith School, pursuing their MBA while working full-time, Alemayehu and Biratu agree that their experiences while earning their MBAs were some of the most impactful experiences in their lives.
“When you come in, and when you leave, you are completely two different people,” Biratu said. “I found another layer of myself that I didn’t know was there.”
Biratu loved the supportive community and the interactive classes at Smith. She took advantage of the study abroad program and traveled to Brazil. After earning her MBA, she decided to leave the corporate world. Biratu moved back home to Ethiopia and began working as an independent consultant in hospitality.
“My journey at Smith was one of the most impactful experiences in my life,” Alemayehu agreed. “Smith taught me the need to be bold, to not sell myself short and to be confident.”
Coming from an entrepreneurial family, Alemayehu knew she always wanted to start her own business, which is why the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship was a huge draw for her to Smith. She also took advantage of the study abroad program and traveled to Israel and Australia. After working at Booz Allen Hamilton post-graduation, Alemayehu also decided to take a break from the consulting industry and visit her home of Ethiopia.
Finding themselves in the same place at the same time once again, Alemayehu and Biratu reconnected over coffee, and that’s where the concept for Yenaé really launched. When Alemayehu returned back to the U.S., with an idea in tow, she, on behalf of Yenaé participated in the 8-week Lean Startup Dingman Jumpstart Program. This program provided them with the well-rounded experience needed to start a company and taught them how to effectively build something from the ground up, without getting caught up in the traditional way of building a business.
Before starting the program, they had the idea to focus on creating a customizable jewelry brand targeted primarily toward the wedding industry and special events. However, because of the program, they were able to test and validate all their assumptions behind their business idea. This helped them to re-define their value add and the desired target audiences they wanted to serve, jumpstarting the road to what Yenae has become today.
With Biratu still living in Addis Ababa and Alemayehu in Virginia, they look at their geographical locations as an opportunity, rather than a challenge. Through their dedication, help from their close support systems and the experiences they gained at Smith, Yenaé launched in November 2018 featuring designs inspired by two African countries: Ethiopia and Eritrea. As a two-woman company, they wear many hats to keep the business running, including designing the jewelry themselves. As their brand continues, they’re excited to feature all the rich culture and heritage of the different African countries.
When asked what advice they would give to current Smith students, they said: Invest your time in making personal connections outside of a structured classroom setting, grow your professional network, keep pushing through the challenging times and take care of yourself and your emotional well-being.
Life coaching, executive coaching, career coaching. Many of us have heard of and possibly even experienced these various coaching styles. But Eugene Vassilas ’10 brings a unique coaching style to the table: Human Development Training. Eugene works as a high-performance coach to get individuals out of their own heads and into their own bodies. He combines executive coaching and life coaching because he believes personal and professional development are so closely linked.
“My workshops have a huge component of mindfulness and body awareness. Whether you’re talking to your boss or under a tight deadline at work or having a difficult conversation with a friend: it’s how you maintain a state of inner and outer balance,” said Eugene. “I help people reverse the natural human response of shrinking in the face of a challenge.”
A Maryland native, Eugene was attracted to the University of Maryland because of the campus, its proximity to DC and its diversity. He grew up in a multi-cultural home and is polylingual, so he wanted to be surrounded by a diverse community. He took advantage of the international programs and participated in three study abroad programs in Thailand, Vietnam and Dubai.
“Smith enabled me to look at things not only in a college context but more at an international and global context,” Eugene said.
By his senior year, Eugene was on track to graduate with a dual degree in marketing and logistics, but he always had an inner desire to study psychology. On a whim, he decided to drop all of his logistics classes and enroll in five psychology courses, setting him up to graduate with a marketing major and a psychology minor. Eugene felt like this was the perfect pair.
“I think it made my marketing better,” he said. “Psychology made me better able to understand people in business, too.”
Now Eugene helps individuals create their best lives. Speaking six languages, he has taught at various venues in multiple countries, including the U.S., Brazil, Italy and the Netherlands. He’s taught communication, self-development and charisma workshops in formal settings, as well as at festivals like Burning Man. He’s learned that whether they’re in a costume at a festival or in a suit at a business conference, everyone wants to be the best version of themselves.
“Communication is one of the most common things we do, but it is also one of the most complex,” Eugene said. “We help simplify that and give them the skills to become a better communicator.”
Eugene will always be grateful for the extremely supportive Smith community and advises current students to reach out to and connect with as many people as possible within this community. There’s no doubt the experiences you gain from Smith build a strong foundation, but Eugene encourages Smith students to study other topics.
“With full love to Smith, its students are not single-dimensional humans,” he said. “You don’t exist in a vacuum, so honor your other interests too.”
Be sure to check out Eugene Vassilas’ latest book coming out in April! The Rebel’s Bible is a book about mindset mastery and personal empowerment for millennials.