Amanda Brown

Friday night UCF held a dinner for national merit scholar finalists and their parents. It is part of our effort to turn these high achievers into Knights. I always volunteer to go to this event but, this time I did something different: I took my own national merit scholar with me. I brought Amanda Brown. Well, really I had her crash the event. It was an exercise in risk-taking on her part, but this is one of those instances where the Dean can get away with last minute stuff others can’t, so it really wasn’t a high-risk adventure for her.

For those of you who don’t know, Amanda is our lead Ambassador, Honors College student, study abroad veteran, and economics major with a job waiting for her when she graduates this spring at a major bank having wowed them in the interview. In short, she has already gotten to the one.

She is also restless. Amanda is not satisfied with where she is and not entirely sure where to go or how to get there. Midlife crisis at age 22? Maybe. Already worrying about the transition from success to significance? Probably. Tired of me trying to give her lame advice on this? Highly likely. Horrified I am writing about this on my blog? Most certainly.

Amanda’s unease didn’t stop her from being the center of attention at our table. She did her usual awesome job of explaining what it is like to be a UCF student and the legion of opportunities we provide. But as I listened to the table conversation and the program that followed, I wondered what would motivate these students to choose UCF over another institution. Every school they visit is going to give them a “free-ride” scholarship. Every institution they visit will trot out highly successful alumni, accomplished faculty and cute and cuddly students to share their success stories. And honestly, unless we mess these students up, they are likely to be professionally successful independent of their alma mater. So, what will make us the choice of people who have so many choices? And, why does it matter to them if they choose UCF over some other institution?

Hard questions. Perhaps the answers lie in helping Amanda solve her significance problem. I don’t mean to suggest that we can do this for her—a good part of the solution lies within her—but I have become increasingly convinced that we in academia are not very good at calling people to action. I worry that we have forgotten that universities are about hope (something different but related to landing a job at graduation) and that it’s ultimately about what people do with all of that knowledge, not just for themselves but for the world we are trying to invent, that really matters. We need to renew this rhetoric and invite people to join us on this mission in each of our areas of inquiry. Maybe when each of us can clearly articulate what we are all about, our students will discover what they are all about and those seeking meaning will choose to join us on our quest.

The Value of Lateral Moves

On Friday we welcomed alumnus Laurette Koellner to my leadership class. Laurette probably has enjoyed more corporate success than any other graduate of the college. (Stan Horton may be the main challenger for that title.) Her career includes time as President of Boeing International as well as board positions at AIG (after the crash), Sara Lee and Papa Johns. She is a member of our Hall of Fame and Dean’s Advisory Board, has her own Wikipedia page (click here) and is a very cool lady.

Laurette got her start at McDonnell Douglas as a contract negotiator and expected to spend her entire career in this area until the company decided to centralize these activities at corporate headquarters. Her job was gone. She was devastated. And in this time of great stress she learned to adapt, taking a new assignment in internal audit with the company. It was then that she realized the value of lateral moves: “They opened the door to more and more opportunities,” she noted. “Each time I took on a new assignment, they learned I could do a wider variety of things and more opportunities came my way.” Those opportunities included time as head of shared service and human resources at Boeing and later as head of an airline leasing company.

It was in recounting this diverse set of experiences that Laurette offered something like this: “The world needs narrow specialists– research scientists, tax experts, and those schooled in the “ins and outs” of derivatives, but most of us are going to be asked to be broader, prepare for a greater variety of assignments and learn to adapt.”

I grinned. I thought about how our new Integrated Business Major will not only prepare students looking to work in small and medium-sized firms, but give people who want to follow Laurette’s path an edge in the market. Who doesn’t like seeing doors open and knowing that you have the skills and confidence to walk right through them?

Get going Dr. Gilkeson, I can’t wait to get that program started next year.

From Soldiers to Seekers

UCF has about 1,600 students who have seen active duty. About 25% of our student veterans are women. Most served since 2001 and come to us after two years at one of our state college partners.

Transitions can be hard. Family obligations and being the oldest student in the class can be isolating. Jobs after school can also be hard to come by: the unemployment rate among Gulf War II veterans remains much higher than for the population as a whole.

So a couple of years ago, Lonny Butcher of our Office of Professional Development decided to take on this problem and teach his job-seeking students something about the labor market at the same time: Students would learn how employers recruit candidates by organizing a job fair that focused on veterans. Wells Fargo stepped up to sponsor the event. It was a smashing success with more than $15,000 raised for the Wounded Warrior Project, many veterans interviewed and some of our student organizers landing job offers from employers at the event.

For version 2.0, we moved the job fair closer to Veterans Day and opened it up to anyone. Organized by our Ambassadors (especially Dionte Madden) and Tiffany Hughes, 80 companies looking to “Hire Our Heroes” showed up at the Venue last Friday. You can hear Bill Hendrickson from Accenture, an alum and member of our Dean’s Advisory Board, as well as Bryan Long from Wells Fargo (our sponsor) talk about the event by clicking here. In addition to raising another $15,000 for veterans’ causes and welcoming many vets to UCF, we hosted several workshops that offered advice to veterans about how to transition to civilian employment. Every employer told us they wanted to come back next year.

As successful as our event was Friday, the data tell me that a lot of our heroes are still looking for an opportunity. If you want to say thank you to those who served their country tomorrow, offer a veteran a job. Our heroes put their life on the line to secure our future. It’s time for us to help them secure theirs.

New York, New York

The man on the left in the photo is Jesse Wolfe. Two years ago, he finished third in the Joust. His company, O’Dang Hummus (@odanghummus) seeks to be the Ben and Jerry’s of hummus. Jesse owns a blender, an unlimited supply of chickpeas, a contagious personality, and a knack for storytelling. What he doesn’t own is ego. Jesse is coachable–he recognizes his weaknesses and is willing to collaborate with others to improve his skills and business plan.

After his third place finish in the Joust, he started selling his 47 flavors of hummus at local Farmers’ Markets. I strongly suspect that his production process is similar to what Penny on the Big Bang Theory used when she invented “Penny Blossoms.” I also know his margins are better than Penny’s. When Jesse isn’t at Farmers’ Markets or in class, I’m pretty sure he lives in the “Upstarts” space in BA-1, getting advice from people like Steve Felkowitz and improving his business plan. Almost every time I go by that space —morning, noon, night, weekends –Jesse is there.

About a month ago, O’Dang Hummus, along with three other UCF student-lead teams, got invited to New York City to compete in the Blackstone Launchpad business plan competition. There he and his partner Ryan Andrew (the guy on the right in the photo) would compete against19 other teams representing 15 universities pitching ideas that ranged from making space travel affordable, to a laundry service on bikes, to selling camel’s milk. Note that UCF had 4 of the 20 teams in this competition–Cameron is rightly very proud.

Our students pitched their ventures on the 18th floor of the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue. Two of our teams made it to the finals, beating contestants from schools like USC, UCLA, Temple, and UM. When it was all done, UCF had the highest placing student run team. Jesse and Ryan’s O’Dang Hummus finished second overall, just behind a three year old company started by a faculty member that already had 30 employees. Jesse and Ryan’s passion grabbed the judges, their plan showed them the numbers worked, and their knowledge convinced potential investors that they could trust Jesse and Andrew to realize the vision. You can read about it all by clicking here. After the event, Blackstone asked Jesse and Ryan to delay their departure home so that they could meet with Blackstone’s catering staff on a special event that would feature their product.

The path that “gets you to the one” often takes you far from your comfort zone (it was the guys first time in NYC), and over difficult terrain (third place finishes). Frequently it requires you to find collaborators along the way (Ryan, Steve) and takes you to a place where passion collides with cold hard data (a business plan competition judged by seasoned investors). But “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” and be the one that lands the big check. Well done guys, well done.