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Smeal Alumni Entrepreneurship Panel highlights diverse experiences

October 28, 2021

By MELISSA MANNO 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Five Penn State alumni took the floor recently at the Smeal Alumni Entrepreneurship Panel, giving students valuable career insight, sharing their experiences and discussing the importance of diversity in entrepreneurship. 

The event, which was held in partnership with the Penn State Smeal College of Business Development & Alumni Relations Office and Diversity Enhancement Office, took place at the Business Building and was one of Smeal’s first in-person events for alumni and students since the onset of the pandemic. It was spearheaded by panelists Karla Trotman and Antonio Nieves, who wanted a live, in-person opportunity for diverse alumni to share their stories with students in order to highlight entrepreneurship as a viable career path. 

The event navigated discussions such as the importance of equity and inclusion in the workplace; the transition from the corporate world to entrepreneurship; the ways in which businesses can have positive impacts on their community; and how students can position themselves for a successful entrance into their selected industries.   

The panelists who participated were:

  • Karla Trotman, president & CEO of Electro Soft, Inc. (business logistics ’98)
  • Ryan Brown, chief operating officer at We Are Wonderfully Made LLC (integrative arts ‘13)
  • Antonio Nieves, CEO at Interior Define (accounting ‘03)
  • Jimetta Colston, CEO of JC Consulting Firm (marketing ’01)
  • Keshia Davis, owner of Denise’s Delicacies (economics ’99)

The conversation was moderated by Jessica Trotter, an accounting student who is president of the Multicultural Women’s Forum. She posed questions that helped students get an inside look into what life as an entrepreneur can entail. 

Each of the alumni shared their unique story, demonstrating that entrepreneurship isn’t a one-size-fits-all industry and instead, is fit for students from all walks of life and pursuing all industries. 

Davis’ entrepreneurship story is rooted in family ties. Once a project manager at Aramark, Davis ended up taking over her aunt’s business, Denise’s Delicacies, a large Philadelphia-based bakery that’s earned itself a cult following in the city. 

Now in the position of revamping her family’s business, Davis discussed the difficulties she’s encountered, such as managing the various departments and making sure people are doing what’s expected of them. Even with those obstacles, Davis said that making the switch from her corporate job to running her family business was the best decision she ever made. 

“Every day I have a triumph and a disappointment and a setback and another triumph,” Davis said. “That’s why I love what I do — every day looks different and I wake up expecting to solve problems.” 

Trotman, who has been a vocal proponent of the need for the Smeal Minority-Owned Business Network, emphasized the importance of seeing entrepreneurship as an opportunity to create real change and promote diversity in business. 

“Companies led by diverse presidents and CEOs hire more diverse candidates because they actively look for that,” Trotman said. “One of the benefits of being an entrepreneur is that you can set that tone with the culture, mission and values of your business.”   

After experiencing both life in the corporate and entrepreneur world, Trotman said there are benefits and challenges to consider for both — but she emphasized that she wouldn’t trade her life as an entrepreneur because of the freedom and autonomy that comes with it. 

Colston also emphasized the power of having the liberty to make her own business decisions. Colston, who owns her own consulting firm, emphasized how taking advantage of network opportunities has helped her in her entrepreneurial role.   

Once working in a role where she said not many people looked like her, Colston said diversity and inclusion are a top priority for her business. 

The second half of the event opened up the panel to questions from the audience. 

One student asked, “is there anything you would have done differently at our age to prepare yourselves to become entrepreneurs?” 

“Yes,” Nieves said. “That’s exactly why we are here.” 

Nieves continued by saying most of the panelists have made mistakes along the way and that this is normal — but he also emphasized that he and his fellow alumni all showed up with the purpose of helping students avoid some of those same mistakes.   

“The biggest thing that holds people back is the fear of hearing the word ‘no,’” Nieves said. “So many people are afraid to ask questions or make career changes because they’re afraid of the response. This will limit your own capabilities and potential.” 

Brown, who is also a current graduate student in Smeal’s Master’s in Corporate Innovation & Entrepreneurship program, said the most fundamental piece of advice he could offer was to encourage all of the students present at the event to take advantage of Smeal’s extensive network of alumni and be bold in connecting with people.  

“One of the biggest mistakes I made in undergrad was going to networking events but not following up and reaching out after the fact,” Brown said. “I could have been so much further along in my career from a business standpoint if I had just reached out to people earlier.” 

Each member of the panel was also invited to define what success meant to them, in order to portray the various drivers that help motivate them in their careers. 

“Success for me is being able to impact the lives of an individual person that comes into contact with our company, but also being able to have something to pass down to the next generation,” Brown said.

This event was a convergence of the Smeal Minority-Owned Business Network and the Smeal Alumni Diversity Entrepreneurship Talks series. It represents Smeal’s broader efforts to showcase the ventures, stories and knowledge of the BIPOC business owners that make up Smeal’s alumni network.

To learn more about Smeal’s commitment to building a culture that welcomes, celebrates and promotes diversity, visit the Smeal website.

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