When you’re a Trojan, you don’t have to look far for a great business idea. With more than 20,000 USC alumni listing entrepreneurship as their profession on LinkedIn, the Trojan Family is filled with enterprising innovators.
To help strengthen this growing group of business-savvy Trojans, the USC Alumni Association launched the USC Alumni Entrepreneurs Network. With a slate of activities including social, educational and career-oriented events, alumni have new ways to connect with the university and each other. The formula is proving popular: Membership has soared to more than 800 Trojans from across USC schools.
Leaning on the Alumni Entrepreneurs Network
For Sheila Pakdaman MS ’12, founder of iTutorU, the network came along just when she was eager to bounce ideas off of other Trojans. “I’ve gotten exactly what I’d hoped for—a strong group of people with diverse backgrounds and skills who are willing to share their advice, contacts and direction,” she says. As one of the USC Alumni Entrepreneurs Network’s founding committee members, Pakdaman has expanded her entrepreneurship circle to 1,000 members and counting.
The group caught the interest of Jenna Zimmerman ’06 for a similar reason. After studying entrepreneurship at the USC Marshall School of Business, Zimmerman took her focus on food television to New York, then San Francisco. With an impending move back to Los Angeles, she was looking for ways to reconnect with the Trojan community. She contacted the Alumni Entrepreneurs Network after seeing it mentioned online and ended up with an offer to be a moderator for panel discussions. “Day two after my move to Los Angeles, I was doing just that,” Zimmerman says.
At one panel’s conclusion, she was stunned when network members approached her with a slew of opportunities. She also reconnected with an old friend. The returning L.A. resident knew right away she had found a great community.
Founding board member Adam Mendler ’05 also found himself in the moderator’s seat for the group’s first panel discussion. It featured three alumni sharing their entrepreneurial journeys. “Each had a very different business, but the message was consistent: Success isn’t always linear,” Mendler recalls. “They spoke about how to grind through challenging times and knowing when to pivot.”
Mendler, who is now chair of the Alumni Entrepreneurs Network, believes the sold-out event helped spread the word about the then-newly formed group. A follow-up panel on hiring was also packed and well-received by attendees.
A place for advice
During the network’s inaugural year, Pakdaman benefited from the group’s influence in many ways, among them her decision to launch an iTutorU mobile app. “Having the board to tap into when I’m in a pickle and contemplating the next step of my business has been great,” she says. “These fellow entrepreneurs are extremely busy with their own projects, but don’t hesitate to respond when I ask for advice.”
Through connections, Mendler says he struck a significant deal for The Veloz Group, his collective of startups that specialize in everything from refurbishing Herman Miller chairs to customizing cigars.
Eddie Lin MBA ’11, the USC Alumni Entrepreneurs Network’s at-large chair, found an unexpected partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). His company, NexusEdge, offers a career navigation platform powered by artificial intelligence. A school district employee reached out to NexusEdge after hearing about the company through the Alumni Entrepreneurs Network. “He was asking for help and I needed networks in the space of underserved high schools in LAUSD,” Lin says. “That connection helped provide statistics and proof points for our next round of funding.” His company received backing from the NewSchools Venture Fund, which is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Dee Murthy ’02 was another speaker at a network event. Murthy got an early start in entrepreneurship, launching Five Four, a men’s apparel subscription service, while he was still a student at USC. Noticing the various age groups at the event, Murthy sought advice from well-established entrepreneurs. “Five Four has had financial success—now I’m looking for insight into how to maintain a successful business that continues to thrive, while having balance and quality in my personal life,” he says.
“Each had a very different business, but the message was consistent: Success isn’t always linear.”Adam Mendler
Expect more events
After a successful first year, Alumni Entrepreneurs Network board members have been able to reflect on past accomplishments and set their sights on future goals. A new 20-member advisory board evenly balanced between returning and new members has crafted a game plan for the year ahead. “The organization has a lot of room to grow,” Lin says. He hopes that the group will find ways to more easily connect USC entrepreneurs and their resources. “Putting human capital together needs to be done more at scale and more quickly,” he says.
The network’s popular events and panel discussions will also get a big push. Nicole Gordillo ’00, MPAS ’08, director of USC’s alumni affinity programs, says, “We’re exploring different types of programming and leadership resources, ranging from raising funds and marketing to mindfulness and dealing with failure.” The group also plans to host at least one event outside Southern California.
As Mendler sees it, year one of the USC Alumni Entrepreneurs Network saw big strides in outreach through social media and email lists. In year two, he says, “We’ll be operating at a different magnitude. Now that we’ve developed a roadmap and are building our brand, AEN’s major goal should be to engage more broadly and deeply.”