VCU launches newly expanded pre-accelerator program, called VCU Pre-X, to better support student innovators and entrepreneurs

Hilton Bennett (B.S.’16/En; Cert.’16/B), then a senior engineering student and now a Master of Product Innovation student at VCU, pitches a business idea last fall to VCU’s pre-accelerator program. Bennett’s idea was centered around an invention he designed to allow mountain climbers to practice indoors.

The da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University is looking for entrepreneurial and innovative students, as well as mentors from the Richmond area’s business community, to take part in a newly expanded and revamped pre-accelerator program that helps VCU students turn their promising ideas into viable startup companies.

VCU’s pre-accelerator program launched in 2015 to identify, support and launch high-growth and high-potential startups and student founders. Over four cohorts, the program’s teams raised more than $2 million in investment and revenue, and three student-run companies went on to be accepted into Lighthouse Labs, the Richmond region’s startup accelerator program.

Now called VCU Pre-X, the pre-accelerator program has shifted to a new model in which all VCU students who meet the minimum requirements will be able to access the program’s curriculum, tools and mentorship. As they progress through the program, participants will have to meet benchmarks and compete with one another for funding.

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School of Business graduate’s foundation helps communities realize their full potential

Sean Powell, a 2011 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business, founded Engage, the Foundation the same year.

Sean Powell (B.S.’11/B) sees family beyond family.

Powell’s mother began fostering children when he was 10 years old. Interacting with his foster siblings — who battled disabilities and misfortune — awakened in Powell a sense of social responsibility. He didn’t know it then, but this led him to find his passion in life: helping others discover their passions.

Powell champions the concepts of community, fellowship, brotherhood and mentorship — the idea of sticking together and experiencing life’s hardships and celebrations, and passing down new information and values along the way.

“If people around me need something to develop or grow, I always make it my effort to provide them access to the resources they need,” he said. “If I can’t provide that personally, then I’ll look into my network to see who I can connect them with so they can reach their goals.”

Powell, a graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, founded Engage, the Foundation in 2011. The community-based organization connects college students to their communities, and encourages them to work with families and kids on campus and in the neighborhood. Two of its main goals are developing successive generations who understand their purpose and identity, and reducing the costs of government assistance needed by unstable families. Engage has spurred growth in communities by holding fundraisers, development programs, workforce programs and other special events.

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VCU’s ‘changemaker in residence’ launches campaign urging people working to alleviate poverty to promise to be ‘sidekicks’

Master of Product Innovation students in VCU’s da Vinci Center take part in the Sidekick Manifesto social media campaign.

While visiting Honduras a few years ago as part of his work running a global development nonprofit, Shawn Humphrey, Ph.D., (M.A.’96/B) snapped a photo of a woman carrying water on her head, thinking the image would be perfect for his organization’s website.

The woman got angry. And, Humphrey realized, she had every right to be.

“It’s kind of a development trope. You see images like this on almost every nonprofit’s website. But I had taken her picture without permission, and she was understandably upset,” he said. “It made me ashamed that I did that. I didn’t use the photo, but essentially I stole her image. And, if she hadn’t said anything, I would have used it as part of [our organization’s] narrative or posted it on our website to try to raise awareness and funds for our work in Honduras.”

The humbling process of realizing he acted unethically prompted Humphrey to write what he calls the Sidekick Manifesto, a promise to support — and not attempt to lead — the efforts to alleviate poverty in communities around the world.

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VCU School of Business launches online MBA

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business launched an online offering of its MBA program this fall. The first cohort of students begin their program today. The VCU Online MBA program offers the same world-class faculty and the same rigorous core curriculum as the ranked conventional evening MBA program, but with the added benefit of a convenient online format.

“The online MBA format is an exciting and epic opportunity for both students and VCU. Individuals who previously could not enroll in VCU’s highly regarded MBA due to time and location constraints can now do so,” said Ken Kahn, Ph.D., interim dean of the VCU School of Business, who will also be teaching a course on creativity and innovation as part of the program.

Each semester, students will take two three-credit courses and a one-credit contemporary issues course such as cybersecurity, globalization, risk management or entrepreneurship. Additionally, the two-year program requires three weekend on-campus residencies, which will expose students to professional development and networking resources, as well as allow time to collaborate with fellow students and faculty. The format is both synchronous and asynchronous — offering a synchronous video conference one night a week, in addition to online content.

“The online MBA program is a high-quality offering, incorporating global best practices in online pedagogy and offering students all the resources available at VCU to traditional students, but in a unique online format,” said Jayaraman Vijayakumar, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate programs at the School of Business.

All VCU MBA programs are accredited by AACSB International, the premier accrediting agency. Being AACSB-accredited means a business school is able to continuously pass a strict set of standards that ensure quality. Fewer than 5 percent of the more than 13,000 business schools in the world have earned AACSB accreditation.

For more information, visit business.vcu.edu/onlinemba.

The pursuit of ‘hoppiness’: Couple drafts a plan for success, opens Twisted Ales Craft Brewing

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

A need for adventure brought Debbi (B.A.’12/H&S; B.A.’12/H&S; Cert.’15/B; M.B.A.’17/B) and Jason (B.S.’17/B) Price to Richmond, Virginia. The couple had lived in California for more than 20 years, but when life started to feel the same, they pulled out a map of the East Coast and threw caution to the wind.

“We put our hands together and made a pointer, closed our eyes and said wherever our fingers landed was where we were going to move,” Debbi says. “When we opened our eyes, we had landed on Richmond. Everything else is history.”

In four months’ time, the Prices sold their home, picked up their two children and moved across the country, sight unseen, arriving in Virginia in 2004, just before Hurricane Gaston hit Shockoe Bottom.

“We turned on the news and saw cars floating down the streets,” Debbi says. “It was quite the first day, but we couldn’t turn back.”

Several years later, Jason started working at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory as a Web developer, and he fell in love with the university and the diversity it offered. Having completed a two-year degree program at Riverside City College before leaving California, he wanted to obtain his bachelor’s in business. VCU was the perfect fit.
“I started in 2006 and had to learn to balance a full-time job, being a parent and going to school one class a semester,” Jason says. “I had more than 20 years of development experience behind me, but it was great to see the educational side of things, and I’m grateful I was able to impart some of my knowledge to my fellow students as well.”

Debbi, who had been studying at the University of Virginia, transferred to VCU where she took classes full time and immersed herself in the college experience. As an undergraduate, she double majored in history and international studies, founded the student organization History Now and served as a senator in the Monroe Park Campus Student Government Association.

She has worked as an academic adviser and administrative specialist in the VCU Department of History since 2013 and has earned both a Certificate in Business Administration and a Master of Business Administration from the VCU School of Business.

“VCU is a microcosm of the world,” Debbi says. “I love the fact that at every turn you can experience something new and culturally diverse. We’re very lucky to have that [on campus].”

Nearly a decade had passed since the family had arrived in Richmond, and the couple had developed a love for craft beer. After some convincing from his wife, Jason eventually decided he should learn to make his own.

“The closest thing we had to [craft beer] growing up in California was Corona and lime, so this was an incredibly new experience for me,” Jason says. “We entered some of our first batch into a competition and got second place. I just couldn’t stop after that.”

The Prices developed more recipes and entered more competitions, and as their success grew so did their ambition. Thinking it would be great if they could run a family business, they drafted a plan and set out to open their own brewery.

“Our oldest son has autism and suffers from a seizure disorder,” Debbi says. “Being able to provide him stable and safe employment was a huge factor in deciding to open a business on our own.”

This past June, nearly two years after that initial conversation about starting a business, their dream became reality when Twisted Ales Craft Brewing opened to the public in the trendy Manchester area of South Richmond. Named for Jason’s want to push the creative limits that craft beers are judged by in competitions, the community has welcomed them with open arms.

The couple is planning an autism awareness fundraiser and is working with a group of VCU School of Pharmacy students who approached them to raise money for The Daily Planet,. The Prices are also partnering with Richmond’s Pink Ink Fund, which provides aid to those needing assistance with post-mastectomy tattoos.

“[Opening a business] hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had our ups and downs,” Jason says. “Regardless of what people tell you, you’re never really ready until it happens.”

With a successful business launch under their belts, the Prices are considering bottling and canning their brews and distributing them within the state, but they remain focused on doing what they can in Manchester.

“You know, there’s no grocery store in Manchester, so we’ve been talking about bringing in a farmer’s market,” Debbi says. “For us it’s more than beer, it’s a place where community can come together.”

Cheeky greeting cards with a VCU twist

Old Tom Foolery cards designed by VCU graduates Tim Shumar and Jenny Yoon.

If you can’t stand sappy, hackneyed greeting cards, Old Tom Foolery might be your savior. Joel and Lauren Gryniewski founded the tongue-in-cheek greeting card business in 2008, knowing that humor was a stable foundation for relationships and business.

“Lauren and I started Old Tom Foolery because we enjoyed trying to one-up each other with funny greeting cards when we were dating, but we had a hard time finding high-quality letterpress cards that weren’t super feminine looking.” Joel Gryniewski said. “So we decided to create a brand that combined nice letterpress printing with a gender-neutral look and tone.”

Since then, the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter graduates have discovered their brand of humor translates into an acclaimed business. The Greeting Card Association has awarded Old Tom Foolery six LOUIE awards (the greeting card equivalent of an Oscar) since 2008, and awarded the company a Most Humorous award in 2012.

When done well, humor has a way of strengthening the connection between a card giver and recipient,” Joel Gryniewski (M.S.’05/MC) said. “When two people have the same sense of humor, it’s almost like a secret code they share. It’s fun to be able to write cards that help people express their shared, irreverent sense of humor in a way traditional cards can’t.”

In 2016, the Gryniewskis began collaborating with students from their alma matter, allowing them to write and design their own greeting cards. May 2017 graduates Tim Shumar (B.S.’15/MC; M.S.’17/B), Jenny Yoon (M.S.’17/B) and Conor McFarland’s (M.S.’17/B) greetings carry the same strain of humor that make Old Tom Foolery’s cards stand out from the familiar, cringeworthy occasion cards you can find at a drug store or supermarket.

For Shumar, writing greeting cards has a dual purpose.

“As everyone knows, greeting-card writing is a surefire way to attract ladies,” he said. “I did it for them. … [I was also hoping to bring] world peace or [end] hunger. Whichever.”

These Brandcenter alumni have flexed their creative muscles for a successful company. The Gryniewskis themselves see Old Tom Foolery as a product of perseverance.

“Starting a business [and sticking with it] isn’t easy,” Joel Gryniewski said. “Lots of people talk about doing it. But we actually did it. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep it going for the past 10 years.”

James Curtis Hall, VCU School of Business’ first dean, passes away at 91

James Curtis Hall spent 26 years as the founding dean of the VCU School of Business, growing enrollment at the school from 400 to more than 4,500 students.

For those who knew him, the most enduring professional legacy of James Curtis Hall, who passed away this week at age 91, is the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business.

In 1967, Hall became the school’s first-ever dean when the Medical College of Virginia and the Richmond Professional Institute merged to form VCU. He spent 26 years in the role, before retiring to return to teaching. During his tenure, the school’s enrollment grew from 400 to more than 4,500.

“Dr. Curtis Hall made a major impact on VCU and Richmond by serving as founding dean of the VCU School of Business, leading the school for 26 years, and establishing the comprehensive, doctoral-granting, accredited institution that we are today,” said Kenneth B. Kahn, Ph.D., interim dean of the School of Business. “His record of scholarship, teaching and leadership is exemplary. We mourn his loss and strive to carry on his legacy.”

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How I got the job: After missing out on an internship, business grad’s persistence helps her land a job at Altria

Brianna Earl is an associate compensation analyst in the department of human resources at Altria.

Brianna Earl (B.S.’17/B) attended an internship fair at the beginning of her freshman year at Virginia Commonwealth University. She met representatives from several companies, including Altria, the tobacco and wine giant and one of Richmond’s largest employers.

“I knew that I wasn’t really qualified yet for any position but I wanted to get a feel for the internship environment at VCU,” Earl said. “When I met [with Altria] I noticed how happy their employees seemed. I wanted to do some more research into the company.”

That first meeting, nearly four years ago, put Earl on a path to her first job. Today, the School of Business graduate is an associate compensation analyst in the department of human resources at Altria, a position that — among other things — is allowing her to learn about how the company operates.

“I love it,” said Earl, who just finished her second month on the job. “I’m able to see what goes on within the company, even if it’s not related to my position. It’s a lot of great early exposure and it’s setting the foundation for me to see what I want to move into further on in my career.”

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VCU Executive MBA program ranked ninth by CEO Magazine

For the first time, the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business Executive M.B.A. has made the top 10 in CEO Magazine’s ranking of Tier One Global Executive M.B.A. Programs. The VCU program came in at No. 9.

Additionally, for the second year in a row, the VCU Evening M.B.A. has been named a Tier One North American M.B.A. program.

Using a ranking system geared and weighted to fact-based criteria, CEO Magazine provides potential students with a performance benchmark. The rankings are based on many factors, including quality of faculty, international diversity, class size, accreditation and faculty-to-student ratio, among others.

VCU’s School of Business provides programs from bachelor’s and master’s degrees to certificate and doctoral degrees. The School of Business has also been ranked in the Princeton Review for “The Best 295 Business Schools” and in U.S. News & World Report for “Best Grad School Rankings” and “Best Undergraduate Business Programs.” The VCU School of Business is accredited by AACSB International, which represents the highest standard of achievement for business schools worldwide and requires the school to continuously pass a strict set of standards that ensure quality.

VCU’s evening M.B.A. program combines business theory, practical application and networking opportunities to advance a student’s future career. The Executive M.B.A. program includes curriculum that continually evolves to meet genuine business needs and provides students with hands-on, collaborative opportunities to creatively solve real challenges for real companies.

Alumna finds the sweet spot of success

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Professional chef and owner of Ruby Scoops Ice Cream & Sweets Rabia Kamara (B.S.’10/B) whips up small-batch, locally sourced, handcrafted desserts and baked goods that she sells in the Washington, D.C., area. Kamara was recently named one of the top black chefs influencing the capital’s culinary culture by Spoon University and will make her first national TV appearance April 30 on Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games.”

Kamara will take over VCU Alumni’s Instagram the week of Monday, April 24. During that week, she will share her preparations for D.C.’s Broccoli City Festival, set for May 6, and the path she’s taken since graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2010.

What made you choose to attend VCU?

One of my sisters, Sawida (B.S.’99/H&S; M.P.H.’02/M), attended VCU for both her undergrad and master’s degrees. We didn’t grow up together so I didn’t start spending regular time with her until middle school while she was living in Richmond and attending VCU for her master’s. She and her friends all seemed to love the city and school, which really stuck with me.

As I got ready to apply for college, I decided to seriously look into going to VCU. I knew it would challenge me academically, but growing up in Montgomery County, Maryland, I was used to the challenge. I also wanted to be out of state but close enough that if there were an emergency, I could get in my car and drive home.

The first time I visited VCU’s Monroe Park Campus, it solidified my decision. I was in love. There’s a liveliness to campus that I’d never been exposed to or been a part of before, but as soon as I breathed in the air, I was in.

What’s your favorite memory from your time as a student?

Where do I even begin!? From staying up until 5 a.m. in my dorm and still managing to make it to an 8 a.m. class to parties in the Commons and probates. I remember when I first moved off campus and finally got to experience Richmond and fall in love with the city on my own terms. Above all, it was the relationships I made with the people around me and having the chance to reinforce my relationship with myself that I remember the most.

Did you always want to be a chef?

Food has always been a passion of mine, but when I first came to VCU I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. When I realized I wasn’t going to go to law school as my family wanted, but that I actually wanted to go to culinary school and pursue my passion, it created lot of inner turmoil and tension. It was my friends in the city and at the university who provided me the support system I needed to stick to my guns. They helped me follow my dreams, and I never thought that being at VCU would have led me on that path.

So how did you come to start Ruby Scoops?

I graduated with a B.S. in marketing, which I’ve utilized every day since graduating. I saved the money from my first, and only, noncooking full-time job as a cushion when I started culinary school. I attended L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland and graduated with distinction in 2012. I’ve been cooking professionally for five years now and started Ruby Scoops in 2015. It’s been great because my fellow Rams have been ridiculously supportive, buying and boosting my brand, and the lessons I learned as a student have been extremely helpful on my entrepreneurial journey.

What’s next for you and Ruby Scoops?

Currently we’re partnering with FRESHFARM farmers markets to raise $10,000 through a Kiva microloan to do more wholesale and save for a brick-and-mortar location next year. This summer we’ll be making our RVA debut at the Heart & Soul Brewfest at Hardywood, and we’ll also be at this year’s Broccoli City Festival in D.C.!

I’d really love to come back to Richmond and open up a shop someday near campus. My dream is to live above my shop and show not just my fellow Rams, but also Richmond, what can happen when you follow your dreams and work hard to reach them.