The World Is Our Business

Illustration of Olin Hall


Sometimes great ideas change the world. Sometimes great people make a reverberating impact through sheer talent and determination. And sometimes all it takes is the ability to see – and seize – an opportunity when it slaps you in the face. But the ultimate difference between a successful entrepreneur and a failure is simple.

“The thing that separates winners from losers is drive,” says USD Professor Helder Sebastiao. “That’s the secret sauce, the missing ingredient, the one thing that can’t be taught. You have to have the drive and the passion to work without a paycheck because you believe that you’re building something greater.”

That greatness can come in many forms, whether it’s building a hotel conglomerate in tropical locales or health clinics in poverty-stricken regions. It’s the characteristics those intrepid souls share – whatever their business – that Sebastiao and his School of Business Administration colleagues are intent on molding.

Idea Drivers

Since arriving at the University of San Diego in 2007, Sebastiao has been one of the driving forces behind elevating entrepreneurship within the business school and across campus as faculty advisor to the university-wide Entrepreneurship Club (or “E-Club”) and coordinator of the SBA’s Business Plan Competition.

The now biannual contest (graduate students in the fall, undergraduates in the spring) has become an increasingly popular baptism-by-fire for those wanting to test their ideas – and their mettle.

“Putting yourself out there is the first risk you take,” Swati Singh ’11 (MBA), the E-Club’s graduate president, says.

“When you’re starting out, you know you’re going to get burned at some point. That’s why so many students want to be in the competition: They want to share their ideas and get feedback from people who’ve been there.”

It doesn’t hurt that very tangible rewards await those who excel at the theoretical exercise. For example, Daniel Peñ a ’10 earned the $2,250 top prize last year (and is in the running for the $100,000 “QPrize” competition run by Qualcomm Ventures) for Perfectna FX, his concept for a foreign exchange trading company.

More importantly, he caught the attention of Brandon Fishman ’05 (MS), who now serves on the board of Peñ a’s fledgling enterprise while helping him secure venture capital.

Fishman’s own first business,, originated as a USD class project with classmate (now business partner) Brent Gleeson ’05, and led to the co-founding of several other Internet companies. Fishman is currently president of Internet Marketing Inc., an online marketing and advertising firm that regularly uses USD students as interns. Fishman and Gleeson have also served as Business Plan Competition judges and as guest speakers imparting their entrepreneurial knowledge to students.

“You cannot be afraid of risk,” Fishman says. “If you’re looking for a stable job and stable income and normal hours, it’s definitely not for you.”

But it takes more than determination and a Starbucks intravenous drip to be successful. You have to find at least some pleasure in the pain, a point that was driven home for E-Club undergraduate president Meredith Kronja ’11 after listening to Kyle Miholich ’07 (CEO and founder of Fiji Yogurt) speak at a campus “Knowledge Transfer” event.

After graduation, Kronja figured she would return to her native Santa Barbara and help run Caring Hearts of the Central Coast, the in-home elderly care business she co-founded with her father. But after contemplating Miholich’s message about the need to truly love what you do, she decided to follow her passion: Cookies.

Ever since childhood, Kronja has loved making and baking tasty sweets (earning herself the nickname of “Cookies” in high school). Now she’s in the process of establishing Campus Cookies, a company delivering homemade-to-order baked goods to voracious college students.

“I think you have to have passion,” Kronja says. “There are so many pitfalls and struggles you’re going to go through, if you’re not 100 percent passionate about what you’re doing, there’s no way you’re going to be able to follow through.”

Even then, the only absolute guarantee for an entrepreneur is that there are no guarantees. The ability to understand – and embrace – the fact that you will fail (repeatedly) is yet another chasm to navigate for the reward of being your own boss.

“The entrepreneur model is that you fall, you get up, you fall and you get up,” says Scott Kunkel, a USD business professor for 18 years before retiring in August 2010.

“Each time you fall, you get up stronger and more determined than ever to be successful. That’s the mark of an entrepreneur.”

Sebastiao has been instrumental in fostering that entrepreneurial spirit, in part by helping current USD students connect with alumni like Fishman through the Business Plan Competition, the E-Club and traditional networking. Sometimes it really is about who you know. But there’s also no substitute for good old-fashioned elbow grease.

“Honestly, I think people tend to overrate ideas,” he says. “I have students who won’t tell me anything because they’re afraid I’m going to steal that idea. What they don’t realize is that there are probably 100,000 people around that world who have the same idea. The difference is having the ability to implement it into a viable enterprise.”

Tom Breitling ’91 knows a thing or two about that. In fact, he knows about 215 million things about it. That’s the estimated amount (in dollars) that Breitling and business partner Tim Poster profited from the sale of one company they built ( and one they revitalized (The Golden Nugget hotel-casino properties). Along the way, Breitling starred in a reality show (“The Casino”), wrote a book (Double or Nothing) and is now an executive at Wynn Resorts and owner of the Breitling Ventures investment firm.

Not too shabby, considering Breitling earned his communications degree with the intention of being a sportscaster. But his USD experience, particularly the friendship he forged with classmate Lorenzo Fertitta ’91 (who recently made Forbes’ list of America’s youngest billionaires), who introduced Breitling and Poster, altered that career path ever so slightly.

Everybody has that moment or that person that helps define their lives,” Breitling says. “USD was a big part of that for me.”

In turn, Breitling has become a prominent supporter of USD’s entrepreneurial endeavors by endowing a scholarship, giving guest lectures and serving as a judge in the Business Plan Competition.

“The one thing that stands out every time I go back to USD is the desire of the students to change the world around them,” Breitling says. “And you can change the world in many different ways. A great idea doesn’t have to be the next Google. A great idea could be helping people in remote parts of the world have access to food or technology. I think USD represents that mindset extremely well.”

The University of San Diego has indeed established itself at the educational forefront of the Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet, Profit) concept of fusing a for-profit mentality with nonprofit sensibilities.

“I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive,” Sebastiao says. “I think it’s actually an injustice to separate the two, and USD is an ideal place for this kind of entrepreneur activity because of the mission of the university and the type of students we attract.”

In fact, that’s precisely what drew Swati Singh to Alcalá Park.

“I felt like USD could help me meld those two worlds together,” Singh says. “They surround their whole curriculum around the ideas of social responsibility and sustainable enterprise. Those concepts are important to me, and they’re reinforced by every element of my education at USD.”

Entrepreneurs share some universal traits – drive, determination, courage – but what sets USD apart, in the estimation of School of Business Dean David Pyke, is the university’s emphasis on infusing conscience into the entrepreneurial spirit. Whether a person finds their passion in cookies or building schools in Nigeria is really beside the point.

“We all want to make the world a better place, whether that’s by being an investment banker or starting a non-profit enterprise,” Pyke says. “What matters is that whatever our students choose to do, they do it with excellence, compassion and integrity.”

— Nate Dinsdale

Life Changers

Picture Michelle Martin at age 9 on her little pink flowered bicycle, weighted down with newspapers for her three newspaper routes. Picture a loss of balance that felled her and the bike and the papers, and the tiny Martin unable to even get the bike up again without someone coming by to help her.

Now picture her at age 22, starting a nonprofit with little idea how to run it. Karuna International languished, with a good idea – sending disadvantaged kids on volunteering trips abroad – but little in the way of the kind of acumen that would help it thrive.

But now, everything’s different. Why? Because of what she learned a few years later in USD’s Nonprofit Leadership and Management Program.

“I can tell you honestly that it was invaluable,” says Martin, who admits she didn’t even know how to do a budget before taking the master’s program, which she completed in 2007. “I would not be able to do what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for the program.”

Karuna – which is a Sanskrit word that means “compassion” – has been an evolution. It started from the wide-eyed idealism of a college student who wanted to change the world and give others the kind of volunteering experience she’d had with kids with cancer in Poland. It’s evolved into an educational program that can instill that world view, that drive to help others, into more kids, while enabling some to actually receive scholarships to volunteer abroad.

USD’s program helped her realize that what Karuna needed was a restructuring. It’s still the only nonprofit to offer scholarships for volunteering abroad, but she’s remade the venture into an organization that has a greater reach.

“I would like us to be a go-to for any kind of global volunteering,” she says. The nonprofit’s website,, is aimed at helping would-be volunteers get up to speed on what they need to know and where they might find opportunities.

But it’s the flagship “My First Passport” program that promotes Martin’s original goal: giving those who can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars in program fees the chance to still take that volunteer trip. The eight-week course introduces the students to the rest of the world in a way their schoolwork doesn’t. At first, Martin says, “They can’t even list the seven continents. We teach things I wouldn’t expect people my age even to know, but to not know the seven continents, to me is unacceptable.”

She blames “global apathy” among teens. “It’s all about them. They’re so engulfed in their own lives. Why would they even think about what’s going on with teenagers in Brazil?”

Karuna gives these students global awareness while also helping them realize that while they’ve grown up hearing they’re underprivileged, they’ve actually got it good. From each class, a few receive a scholarship for a two-week service-learning trip. Karuna pays all their expenses, right down to passport fees, a suitcase, a camera and a journal in which to record all their experiences. For those that actually attain the scholarships – so far a handful of kids from San Diego have gone to Brazil or Costa Rica – the lessons truly change them.

“They come back, and they’re like, ‘I’m fine. I have electricity. I have running water. I have a roof over my head. I can go to school and use the Internet.’” The kids get excited about helping others. “And that’s what we want,” Martin says. “That’s the light bulb that goes on.”

To complete the project, students who receive scholarships also put on a presentation in their community, raising money, planning an event and reinvesting those funds into a social change project that each of them choose for their own community.

Another program, Compassion in Action, sees Martin building on the relationships she’s made on her many solo travels and on those with Karuna students. During a break between semesters at USD, Martin took a trip to Africa, consulting for a third-party program that worked for the Ghana government, and offering up suggestions for ways that a group of women rice farmers might increase their revenue.

“Luckily I had just taken some really relevant courses in my program,” she says, and realized she could “legitimately” help these much older, more experienced women. That help continues, as Karuna’s Compassionate Action provides technology, grant money and other resources. For example, the hard-working women might need a truck to drive the palm oil they harvest to the market – rather than carrying  50-pound barrels on their backs – so they can sell more.

“To them it seems like an insurmountable obstacle, but I can come back and have a cocktail party and raise $3,000.” Still, running a nonprofit in tight economic times isn’t generally that easy.

“Even now, we’re struggling. It’s a shoestring operation. It’s just me. I still don’t earn an income. I still have to have another job (in public relations). It’s been very challenging, but it’s something I’m so committed to and dedicated to; I know that we’re going to get past this rough patch.”

One of the things that picks her up when she’s feeling discouraged is the story of Priscilla. When the class began, Martin remembers, the girl would sit in the back of the class with a sweatshirt over her head. At the end of eight weeks, well, she was actually much the same. While many of the students were clamoring for the chance to go on the service trip – the selection is based on the students’ projects, tests and essays – Priscilla hadn’t come around enough for some of the decision-makers.

“By the end of the course, you have half the kids who are saying, ‘I want to go to Africa and save the orphans,’ which is amazing. But then you have the kids that are just like, ‘Whatever.’ And to me, those are the ones that really need the experience. The light bulb hasn’t gone off for them yet.” Martin convinced the others that Priscilla should go. A few weeks after her return, Martin started hearing from those close to her.

“They were like, ‘What happened to her? She turns off the lights. She eats all her food. She recycles. She’s getting straight A’s,’” Martin remembers. “She had the most humble change. She became a very strong leader. To this day, it makes me really emotional. She’ll always call me saying, ‘Thank you so much, you changed my life. I see things so differently now.’”

And she backed it up with a donation. She’s in college now, but while she was still in high school and working at McDonalds, Priscilla told Martin she wanted to make a $5 donation to the scholarship fund so that other students could experience what she did.

“You know what, that means more than a $1,000 donation, right there. Sometimes when I feel discouraged by the economy or by how difficult fundraising is, just that one experience makes it all worth it for me,” Martin says.

The goal is to nurture Karuna into an organization designed to bring international volunteering experiences to a great many more teens and young adults. “I can guarantee that anybody who goes on a trip like this is going to come back with that perspective change, and to do it at 15 or 16 is so important, because that’s when they’re deciding what they’re going to do with their lives – not necessarily what their career will be, but what their role in the world is. They can go on and continue to just worry about their iPods or their tennis shoes or who’s wearing what, or they can have that perspective shift at 16 and realize there’s a whole big world out there, and they can do something about it.”

Even if it’s just a $5 donation.

— Kelly Knufken

Front Liners

At about the same time that grad student Kathryn Whitlow was brainstorming with cohorts about making a difference through USD’s new Center for Peace and Commerce, local social entrepreneur Steven Wright was digging discarded tires out of the muck of the Tijuana River Estuary. Those tires would be converted into steel-belted bricks for an inventive housing solution in the impoverished settlements of Tijuana. Along the way, Wright and a collection of USD students – Whitlow included – would become vanguards in the environmental and humanitarian crisis just south of USD’s campus.

This collaboration between USD and Wright’s 4Walls International is just one of the initiatives in the works at the burgeoning Center for Peace and Commerce (CPC).

The year-old center is a unique partnership between the School of Business Administration and the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, bringing students, faculty and entrepreneurs from both disciplines together to inspire business innovation that supports people, planet, profit and peace.

“The whole idea is: How can we become a hub for new ideas in terms of enterprise that brings social and environmental awareness along with peace and profits?” asks Patricia Marquez, associate professor in the School of Business and faculty director of the Center for Peace and Commerce.

The center mines the strengths of the two schools to pioneer solutions for age-old troubles around the world.

“In situations of protracted conflict, when they are fortunate enough to bring it to a stage of accord, if nothing else is done, within five to 10 years, about 50 percent of those situations fall back into conflict,” says William Headley, dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies.

“What makes the difference is if economic well-being steps into the place of the conflict.”

To help forge that economic well-being and peaceful stability, the Center for Peace and Commerce takes on a three-pronged mission of teaching, research and enterprise development. Classes such as Peace through Commerce raise the issues. Flagship programs such as the annual Summit on Peace and Prosperity through Trade and Commerce offer solutions. And student community outreach, such as the developing partnership with 4Walls International, tests both in the field.

4Walls, just over a year old itself, repurposes tires, bottles and aluminum cans to help build shelters that can harvest water and energy, produce food, treat waste, and heat and cool naturally, without the need of a water table or central utilities. Ultimately, the organization is teaching those living in poverty empowering solutions for food, water and shelter.

USD students learned about 4Walls at the 2010 summit and quickly mobilized to join the effort. With a range of talents from both schools,
students are working on a business plan, fundraising, community surveys and construction. It’s a project that was easy to adopt, says Whitlow, a master’s student in peace and justice studies who spent the summer on thesis research in India.

“The model of building homes out of large-scale trash spoke to me because I had spent so much time witnessing the slums in India,” she says. “It would be easily applicable to other areas of the world.”

With expanding international experiences such as Whitlow’s, USD students bring essential firsthand perspectives to the CPC. Laura Hetzel, an IMBA student, spent six years in China working on sustainability issues with Ogilvy Public Relations and Ogilvy Earth. She chose USD for graduate school because of its academic reputation in the areas of corporate social responsibility and sustainability.

“Living in China, I saw on a daily basis what happens when economic development overtakes environmental protection,” says Hetzel, the inaugural student intern with the CPC. “Businesses have to become part of the solution.”

Students themselves are transforming organizations with the help of
USD faculty. Marquez, for example, is developing a course for 2012 in which students will analyze a network of schools on location in Ghana to offer improvements to the model.

As part of a CPC Business and Society course, undergraduate Mariana Luis Palmieri created a socially responsible campaign for Toms Shoes, and then offered the ideas to the company. While the campaign did not progress, Luis Palmieri’s sense of commitment did.

“Whatever I do in business, I will always keep social responsibility in mind,” she says. “After all, If your brand is not good to the environment, who will want it?”

This partnership of good business and social conscience is at the heart of the Center for Peace and Commerce. No longer do students have to decide between making a living and making the world a better place.

“Social movements now are viewed less as a sort of strange fringe and more as an integral part of society that is actively shaping the demand for sustainable goods, the demand for goods that are produced without sweatshop labor, or are produced in environmentally sensitive ways,” says Topher McDougal, faculty member at the School of Peace Studies and liaison to the CPC. “People are keeping that in mind when they go shopping for their daily needs.”

A key component for the social movements and initiatives to come from the Center for Peace and Commerce is that they will be conceived and launched by students. “We want students to be the owners of these efforts, as opposed to professors and others,” says Marquez. “We are creating the possibility for those individuals who are young leaders and have a lot of creativity to harness all of that potential and transform it into something real. Part of the learning process is developing their capabilities as future leaders or entrepreneurs.”

The CPC recently received $45,000 to fund the new Students for Social Innovation initiative, which provides a venue for undergraduate and graduate students to generate their own sustainable social venture or to contribute to an existing organization – all supported by faculty mentors.

Under the initiative, students will prepare proposals and business plans with feedback from professors; a select number of projects each year will be awarded funding and launched. Students will then reflect on their projects in CPC blogs and discussion seminars so that others can learn from their experiences.

While the CPC is guided by a wealth of ambitious, expert committees – faculty for teaching and research, student leaders for engagement and outreach, and business and nonprofit professionals for programming and partnerships – it’s hard to beat the boundless enthusiasm of budding student social entrepreneurs.

“These students really want to tackle things head on and they don’t want to wait,” says Nadia Auch, assistant director of the Center for Peace and Commerce. “They are creative, inspired, smart and courageous, and they are ready to jump in today, tomorrow, and create solutions. Our challenge is to keep up with their desire to do something now.”

Steven Wright agrees. “The warmth and the reception at USD have been awesome,” he says. “The students are very excited about becoming involved. It can be so easy to make a difference, whether you give a canvasser five or 10 bucks, or you sweat and you carry buckets of dirt and you pound tires with sledgehammers. It feels good to do something positive in the world.”

— Trisha J. Ratledge

Wave Riders

These days, life for environmental advocate and aspiring online entrepreneur Wyatt Taubman ’10 is, in a word, hectic. After all, how many people are personally invited by Patagonia co-founder Yvon Chouinard to ride perfect waves off the coast of his private ranch retreat in Southern California’s ultra-exclusive Hollister Ranch – and then threatened with a trademark infringement lawsuit by a multi-billion dollar corporation?

You certainly could forgive the 24-year-old Kilauea, Kauai native for feeling more than a little dismayed by such disparate experiences, but the same boundless energy that Taubman has channeled into building his sustainable-living website is what buoys him when things get _ well, you know.

“It can be a little hectic, but I’m really just trying to connect people from across the globe who are interested in living sustainably,” he explains. “I want ThinkGreenLiveClean to be a source for environmental awareness and best practices that reduce our impact on the planet.”

The business has evolved from a one-man show in 2008 to one of the Web’s fastest-growing environmentally themed news and information centers. As the site has developed, so too has the need for fresh content and information on all things eco-friendly. Luckily, Taubman hasn’t had to look far for qualified and like-minded individuals who share his passion.

“I’ve been fortunate to find a lot of talented writers and contributors through my connection to USD,” he says. “There are a lot of current students and alumni who have contributed to the website.”

Presently, Taubman has 16 past and present Toreros contributing to ThinkGreenLiveClean’s blogs and web pages. That’s an especially impressive accomplishment considering that, only four years ago, he was a sophomore environmental studies major who didn’t have much of a clue as to where his professional path would lead. That would soon change, thanks in no small part to USD’s study abroad program.

“I travelled to Australia my sophomore year, and I was amazed at how the green movement had really taken hold down there,” he recalls. “It seemed like the Aussies had really gotten the message. I wanted people back home to do the same.”

Energized by the budding green revolution he had witnessed Down Under, Taubman charged himself with the task of promoting environmental awareness stateside in a manner that would lend itself to the image-heavy, verbiage-light marketing campaigns that resonated with his desired demographic – teens and 20 somethings. Now came the big question: How?

Through a continuous, and at times extremely frustrating, process of trial and error, Taubman determined that, above all else, his message needed to be simple, catchy and clean. The end result? A bumper sticker emblazoned with an image of a budding plant housed inside a light bulb, accompanied by the phrase “Think Green Live Clean.” At the time, no one, including Taubman, would’ve guessed that a mere bumper sticker would become the bedrock of a website that has seen almost 40 percent growth in Facebook and Twitter followers over the last year.

“To be completely honest, I didn’t start the website with expectations,” he admits. “There were some events that got me going, and it’s really just snowballed since then.”

While the maelstrom of pressures and responsibilities synonymous with a budding business has Taubman spinning this way and that, he breaks into a broad smile when discussing the genesis of his commitment to environmental stewardship.

“Oh man, growing up in Kauai, how do you beat that?” he queries, knowing full well that, quite frankly, you can’t. “It’s really the main reason I have such a strong connection with the environment. Whether I was surfing, hiking, swimming, whatever _ it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it instilled in me the belief that we need to protect and preserve our planet.”

Approximately 2,400 miles away from Kauai’s idyllic shores, Travis Bays ’03 is teaching a well-intentioned, infectiously enthusiastic group of student travelers how to surf along the shores of Costa Rica’s Eden-esque Marino Ballena National Park.

After a crash course on proper wave-riding technique – where to stand on the board, how to balance when they get to their feet, and, of course, how to handle the inevitable wipeout – the group splashes out into the bathtub-warm water with surfboards in tow, anxiously anticipating their first wave. When it comes, there is a flurry of activity; flailing arms, kicking legs and odd-looking gyrations that give way to shouts of elation as the swell propels them shoreward. Their excitement is what surfers commonly refer to as “stoke.”

For Bays, it’s a scene that never gets old. “It’s amazing to see how excited people get when they try surfing, some may have never seen a board before they came to the beach,” he muses. “As a teacher, I want people to obtain the knowledge and skills as fast as possible; we don’t want to keep people on the beach, we want them in the water.”

With the establishment of his Bodhi Surf School, Bays is also endeavoring to educate visitors and locals alike on the beauty, value and importance of Marino Ballena National Park. As part of the Central American nation’s only protected marine preserve, Marino Ballena is a laboratory of aquatic life, and an indispensible resource for the people living in the park’s surrounding communities, including Bays’ current hometown of Bahia Ballena-Uvita.

“This community is not really being educated about what an amazing and precious resource exists just offshore,” Bays says, in a tone oscillating between exasperation and annoyance. “They don’t protect it. They don’t conserve it.”

After graduating from USD in 2003 with a degree in economics and anthropology, Bays joined the Peace Corps and arrived in Bahia Ballena-Uvita in 2005, where he helped local citizens develop sustainable businesses that would improve their income and better bolster the community’s economy.

The call of duty would lead Bays inland to the Peace Corps central offices in the capital city of San Jose, but, as an avid surfer and conservationist, he knew where he really wanted to be: “There’s really no place like Bahia Ballena-Uvita. When the opportunity to return presented itself, I was packed and ready to go the next day!”

With the help of his wife, Pilar, and fellow alum Gibran Garcia ’03, Bays has created a program that not only provides participants with a basic understanding of wave-riding, but also an enhanced connection with the local environment and community. “The main goal of Bodhi Surf School is to attract conscious travelers,” Bays says. “We’re trying to get them to understand the importance of the ocean, the enjoyment of surfing, and learning about the community they are a part of.”

Bays is committed to contributing 20 percent of the profits back into the community, and championing a project known as Grupo SURF, which engages the area’s youth through education and conservation projects. “We’re looking to help educate them about the amazing resources that exist right outside their door – and try to become the best and most environmentally responsible surf school in Costa Rica.”

An aspiration that will more than likely lead to a very hectic schedule. But like Wyatt Taubman and all the other successful entrepreneurs before him, Travis Bays wouldn’t have it any other way.

— Mike Sauer