Author: Ha, Emily

Jamison Yaffa, ’14 (CLAS)

Jamison Yaffa

Co-Founder & Portfolio Manager, 6Beacon Capital

Jamison Yaffa ’14 is a co-founder and portfolio manager at 6Beacon Capital, based in Boston, MA. He previously spent time at Crestline Investors and Balyasny Asset Management. Jamison started his career as an Investment Banking Analyst at UBS. He graduated from UConn in 2014 with a B.A. in Economics and a minor in Real Estate Finance. While at UConn, he was an active member in many student organizations including the Kappa Sigma Fraternity, Real Estate Society and intramural sports. He is an avid UConn basketball fan. Outside of work, he enjoys golf, skiing, and fishing.

Jamison Yaffa is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Launched 6Beacon Capital investment management fund at the end of 2021
  • Helps current Huskies find their career path as a mentor in the NetWerx program

What sparked your interest in a career in finance?
I always enjoyed working in fast paced, constantly changing environments and working with people from varying backgrounds and perspectives. 
I found interest in working with companies as they grow and fund their business.

Why is entrepreneurship and innovation important to you? 
Constantly bettering myself and hard work have always been important to me, personally and professionally – entrepreneurship allows you to directly see the results of the work put in.

Can you describe a time you took a risk? Did it pay off? If not, what lesson did you learn?
Launching our fund at the end of last year. Going from a large, established firm with robust infrastructure to a small start-up team has been a tremendous learning experience. Although early days, it has already paid off from a personal development perspective. 

How did UConn prepare you for where you’re at today? 
The networking and alumni base I was exposed to while at UConn allowed me to truly refine my interests and equipped me with the skillset to be successful in this industry.

Tell us a little about your continued involvement with UConn. Why is it important to give back as a mentor? 
Mentors and alumni I met during my time at UConn were critical in shaping my path post graduating. Being a mentor allows me to give back and help guide undergraduate students as they realize their career ambitions.  

Which business tool or resource do you recommend to others, and why? 
The best resource is people in your industry of interest and your peers. Gaining knowledge and varying perspectives is the best way to prepare you for success, particularly at the start of your career. 

What’s your favorite UConn memory?
Watching the (multiple) basketball championships on campus. 

What are you passionate about outside of work?
Activities with friends such as golfing, skiing, and fishing. I also enjoy reading and listening to podcasts.

Joss Tillard-Gates, ’10 (CLAS)

Joss Tillard-Gates

Director, Clark Construction Group

As a Director at Clark Construction, covering Southern California, Joss Tillard-Gates ensures Clark Construction wins work in the region, delivers on Clark’s commitment to maximizing its opportunities to partner with small and diverse business entities for each of its projects, supports workforce development programs, and grows existing relationships while creating new relationships with industry partners throughout Southern California. Prior to joining Clark Construction in 2022, the bulk of Joss’s experience was in policy and government as he spent time as a registered lobbyist representing Los Angeles County, held the role as Legislative Director for a State of California official, while also leading in various capacities on political campaigns, including serving as Deputy Director of Policy for Mike Bloomberg 2020. Joss holds a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Connecticut, a Juris Doctor and Real Estate Law certificate from Western State College of Law, and a Construction Management certificate from UCLA. He also serves on the following boards: Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, Los Angeles Business Council, Build California, ACE Mentor Los Angeles and Orange County, Crete Academy, and Urban Alchemy. While Joss has made Los Angeles his home, he is from Kansas City, Missouri and loves going back home to enjoy his family’s barb-b-q restaurant, Gates BBQ.

Joss Tillard-Gates is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Maximizes opportunities to support small and diverse businesses as a director with Clark Construction Group
  • Shares his leadership advice as a featured speaker with NetWerx: “I’ve always thought about leadership as leading from the front, and planning for the success of those that are following your guidance.”
  • Joss is supporting the power of mentorship by matching donations made during the upcoming UConn Gives 36-hour fundraising campaign

What sparked your interest in policy, community affairs and construction? 

It was never lost on me that my family was in the service business although most would say that we are in the restaurant business, which is true. But our longevity stems both from our product and our service. Couple that with my attending a Jesuit high school, The Rockhurst High School, and living a life of “servant leadership” was pretty much ingrained in me during my formative years. Construction has come into play because I’ve also had a keen interest in real estate and development, watching my grandfather operate the real estate company over the course of my life. Each of his restaurants is a free-standing building, which is required to build a bar-b-q pit, and he is involved in the process from start to finish. From financing, to design, to construction, to completion. The construction industry gave me the opportunity to move out of the public sector in my career, while also providing a more tangible outcome for my work.  

You are part of a group of generous alumni matching donations made during the upcoming UConn Gives. Why did you choose to support The Werth Institute, and how does its mission resonate with your experiences and values?  

I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the Werth Institute, its mission, and its leadership in David Noble. As more and more of our tasks are being automated, and will continue to be automated moving forward, people who fill voids in various markets and meet consumer needs will be the driving force in our society. Entrepreneurship and small business ownership have always been the bedrock of our society and our economy and I’m happy to support Werth as it fosters that environment at the University of Connecticut. I’ve always had an interest in entrepreneurship, both because of the experiences of growing up in an entrepreneurial family, and because entrepreneurship gives you the opportunity to reach your full potential in many ways. It’s a growth opportunity professionally, emotionally, ethically, mentally, etc. etc. and the idea of growing and bettering myself is fundamental to my life. 

Why is giving back important to you, both personally and professionally? 

Giving back is important because I learned very early in my life that when you have more, you should do more. That doesn’t mean charity and sharing of resources should be limited to the wealthy, which I certainly am not. It does mean, that if you really care about a cause, a community, or even a person, you must consider the excess resources you may have and whether you’re really willing to share them. I’ll share a short story to help illustrate my point. When I was a young kid, let’s say 6th grade, I got a pair of basketball shoes for Christmas, among other gifts. One of my best friends, in a less fortunate position, was spending Christmas morning at my house and my mother must have noticed something in his mood or a look on his face when he saw me open that box of shoes. In that moment, my mother told (not asked) me to give him the shoes. They were now his gift. I did, and I’ll never forget it because my friend died in a tragic car accident that following spring. The point is this, if you love people, tell them. If you care about people, act like it. All of our time is limited, and we should be sharing the good things as much as we can. 

 

How has your entrepreneurial mindset influenced your approach to leadership? 

Watching my mother, grandfather, and others in my family that drive the family business on a day-to-day basis helped me understand that you must earn the right to be a leader. It involves setting a high standard, meeting it, then doing all you can to help others reach it. Leaders have to plan, teach, encourage, motivate, and act among so many other things. My mother has both an MBA and a PhD and does not let that stop her from frying French fries in one of our restaurants because she knows that ultimately, she’s responsible for the overall mission of the business. Which is to provide a high-quality product with high level service. For reasons like that, I’ve always thought about leadership as leading from the front, and planning for the success of those that are following your guidance. 

As a past guest speaker in the UNIV 1820 Conversations in Entrepreneurial Leadership course, what advice do you share with students interested in entrepreneurship or aspects of entrepreneurship?  

Entrepreneurship is not easy, but it’s worth it. Don’t get distracted by what looks like success on social media. Find something that you’re incredibly passionate about and go for it. You might fall, and you might fail, but when you go all in the lessons seem to stick. So ultimately, either you’ll end up with a successful business out the gate, or you’ll learn enough lessons to direct your steps to the business ultimately. Just don’t lose confidence and determination. Success doesn’t have a deadline.  

Can you share an instance where you took a risk? Did it pay off? If not, what lesson did you learn from the experience? 

Without going into many details, prior to my time at Clark I took the chance to become a real estate investor on a large project out of state. It was the first time I probably took a large sum of money to invest in something like that and ultimately the investment was lost, and the outcome was unsuccessful. But I’d compare the lessons to about two years of undergrad in less time and for less money, so I think I still came out ahead. Perspective is important. 

How did your time at UConn prepare you for where you’re at today?  

My time at UConn prepared me for where I am today by putting me in an environment where I didn’t know anyone else. I didn’t know of anyone else that was from the same time zone I was from when I first got to UConn. So, it was very important for me to build relationships both with my peers and with faculty. The ability to create relationships has been foundationally important to any amount of professional success I have had up to this point in my life. 

What’s your favorite UConn memory and how has your connection to the university influenced your professional journey? 

My favorite UConn memory is without a doubt the time I spent as a UConn football player from 2006-09. There were plenty of highs and plenty of lows, but the relationships and bonds that grew from that experience are second to none. Half of the groomsmen in my wedding were teammates, my oldest daughter’s Godfather was a teammate, a teammate married one of my cousins after moving to Los Angeles (lol). Ultimately, it has influenced my professional journey because sports and teams bring people from different backgrounds together to meet your ultimate goals. Football is the consummate team sport. It teaches resilience and selflessness, which is something I bring with me professionally. 

Which business tool or resource do you recommend to others, and why?  

Read the autobiographies of entrepreneurs, champion caliber athletes, world renowned artists. After that, read philosophy and books like Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. These resources will provide a deep understanding that what you’re trying to accomplish is possible (many of the people will discuss traumatic hardship in their early years) as well as the shared mindsets, levels of determination, and personality traits that make these same people successful. Biographies and philosophy are like historical playbooks of how to create your own success and all the traits are transferrable to any industry or field.   

What’s your go-to karaoke song? 

My go to karaoke song is “I’d Rather Be with You “by Bootsy Collins. Classics never fail. 

What are you passionate about outside of work? 

I’m passionate about my family. In addition to the family I grew up with in Kansas City, I am now married and have daughters. Family is everything to me. My wife, Alexandria, is an entrepreneur and licensed therapist, and is the founder of HerHealing LA. My oldest daughter, Sadie, will be turning 4 this summer and is killing it at school. And Stella, the 5-month-old, has already done multiple modeling gigs…very LA lol. 

Justin Lee, ’15 (BUS)

Justin Lee

Senior Associate, Palladin Consumer Retail Partners

WerthWatching is an extension of Justin’s vision as a Business student at UConn. In 2014, Justin founded the UConn Consulting Group (UCG), a strategy consulting group bringing together top students with alumni who attended elite business schools and consulting firms. UCG was founded on the belief that given the resources and training, UConn students can compete and land jobs at top companies around the world.

Justin Lee is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Implemented “Strategic Consulting” minor as part of undergraduate curriculum
  • Expertise in consumer-focused buyouts and growth equity investing
  • Leading Werth Institute’s efforts to help students on non- traditional career paths

Why did you choose to work for your employer and how has the experience been?

When I was leaving investment banking, I knew I wanted to go into private equity. PE was attractive to me because you are the principle on the transaction and are truly partnering with the founders or management teams. This alignment of interests and ability to have a true impact on companies sounded exciting. Palladin had a long-standing track record of investing in consumer businesses while operating with a lean team which meant I’d be getting a lot of experience in a sector that has been experiencing dramatic changes.

How did UConn prepare you for the field you are in today?

UConn gave me a good general business background that has been built upon through work experience. While academics are important, UConn also provided a great social setting whether it be on-campus, sporting or other events. Many people believe that a 4.0 GPA will result in an “easy” job search but interviewers are increasingly looking for people they like and can work long hours with.

What’s your favorite UConn memory?

I look back on my UConn experience very favorably so it’s hard to narrow it down to one. Two immediately come to mind:

  • 2014 Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships
  • Delivering the final presentation for our first project as the UConn Consulting Group; this really solidified the legitimacy of something that I spent a lot of time pursuing

What advice do you have for today’s students or aspiring entrepreneurs?

Be proactive. Nobody is going to hand you the job you want just because you have a good GPA and went to UConn. You need to do more – join clubs, network and utilize the resources around you.

What’s next for you?

While I can’t speak in specifics, my company is at a pretty pivotal time in its lifecycle and there are a few large initiatives that should come to fruition over the next 6-12 months. I’m also excited to be working with the Werth Institute to enhance outcomes for students interested in non-traditional career paths. As someone who had to jump through a lot of hoops, I’m hoping we can make it a bit easier for the next generation of UConn students.

Do you have any personal or professional goals you’d like to reach?

I don’t set specific goals such as obtain “X” job title or anything like that – at least not anymore. I like to stay flexible and setting goals sometimes inhibits your ability to think outside the box and be creative. Goal setting works in moderation. To answer the question - I want to gain more experience in my current field and see where it takes me.

What’s your favorite podcast at the moment?

Given the shift to work-from-home over the last year, I have unfortunately significantly cut down on my podcasts. My favorites to listen to on my commute were The Joe Rogan Experience, Stuff You Should Know and How I Built This.

Mike Parker, ’01 (BFA)

Mike Parker

Owner & Creative Director, Lowbrow Studios

Mike Parker graduated from UCONN in 2001 with a degree in Graphic Design and Illustration and is now the owner and creative director of Lowbrow Studios, a full-service animation studio in Fairfield, CT.  Lowbrow has produced, written and directed animated shorts and series for TV, web and streaming.

Mike Parker is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Providing mentorship to Huskies through The Werth Institute’s NetWerx program
  • Lowbrow Studios has worked with clients such as Disney, Nickelodeon, MTV, Mattel, CollegeHumor, Machinima and more
  • Lowbrow Studios is famous for producing the web series Sonic For Hire

What sparked your interest in 2D animation? 

I grew up loving Looney Tunes, The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy and art in general. The way you could tell any sort of story with any sort of character was always amazing to me. 

 

Can you describe your experience as a mentor as part of the NetWerx program? What motivated you to become a mentor? 

I got invited to be a guest at a couple classes in the Art Department and loved seeing the studentswork and their thought processes. It was also great just helping students to try and navigate school or the transition from school to a job environment.   

 

What specific skills or insights do you aim to impart to your mentees? 

What to expect for life after school. Going from a regular job, to freelance, to running a company. The skills required for staying motivated and organized. 

   

In your mentoring role, have you encountered any common challenges or obstacles that students face when entering the field of 2D animation (or the workforce in general) and how do you help them overcome these challenges? 

I think a common problem is a broader working knowledge of animation software. It’s not an easy thing to try and tackle – but being more aware of Toon Boom, Animate, Procreate, After Effects or even things like Premiere. Knowing more about what these programs can offer, how they operate or how they fit into an animation pipeline. I feel like the more a student knows the full process of the pipeline and what software would be a good fit for each section, the more prepared or well-rounded they are for an animation position. 

 

How did UConn prepare you for where you’re at today?  

Oddly enough, UConn didn’t really have an animation program when I was there, so I taught myself the ins and outs. But one of the best opportunities was my Independent Study course with Cora Lynn, where I produced a couple episodes of a web series. That prepared me for learning all the steps in the process and being held accountable more than a regular assignment.  

 

Can you describe a time you took a risk? Did it pay off? If not, what lesson did you learn? 

Biggest risk was leaving my regular job (Graphic Designer) with a steady paycheck to do freelance animation and not knowing if I would be able to make enough on a regular basis. It took a ton of hard work, but paid off  

 

Describe a professional moment you are most proud of, and why? 

Everyone deals with imposter syndrome all the time. Several years ago, I sold a show to Disney, and we were in development with them for a couple years. During that time, I’d be in creative meetings with executives and higher-ups at the company and I was able to contribute some meaningful ideas and saw a positive response. That was a very reassuring moment and helped me realize that I can do this.  

 

What’s your favorite UConn memory? 

I had a bunch, but probably seeing my first comic strip The Nature Showin the Daily Campus. I got so excited I just got up and left class without realizing it. 

 

What are you passionate about outside of work? 

Being creative is such a big part of what I do every day and it’s really what I enjoy at all times. So, if I’m not at work, I’m usually trying to think of ideas for shorts. Or I like to go running, and of course just relax with my wife and our cats.   

Justin Lee, ’15 (BUS)

Justin Lee

Senior Associate, Palladin Consumer Retail Partners

WerthWatching is an extension of Justin’s vision as a Business student at UConn. In 2014, Justin founded the UConn Consulting Group (UCG), a strategy consulting group bringing together top students with alumni who attended elite business schools and consulting firms. UCG was founded on the belief that given the resources and training, UConn students can compete and land jobs at top companies around the world.

Justin Lee is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Implemented “Strategic Consulting” minor as part of undergraduate curriculum
  • Expertise in consumer-focused buyouts and growth equity investing
  • Leading Werth Institute’s efforts to help students on non- traditional career paths

Why did you choose to work for your employer and how has the experience been?

When I was leaving investment banking, I knew I wanted to go into private equity. PE was attractive to me because you are the principle on the transaction and are truly partnering with the founders or management teams. This alignment of interests and ability to have a true impact on companies sounded exciting. Palladin had a long-standing track record of investing in consumer businesses while operating with a lean team which meant I’d be getting a lot of experience in a sector that has been experiencing dramatic changes.

How did UConn prepare you for the field you are in today?

UConn gave me a good general business background that has been built upon through work experience. While academics are important, UConn also provided a great social setting whether it be on-campus, sporting or other events. Many people believe that a 4.0 GPA will result in an “easy” job search but interviewers are increasingly looking for people they like and can work long hours with.

What’s your favorite UConn memory?

I look back on my UConn experience very favorably so it’s hard to narrow it down to one. Two immediately come to mind:

  • 2014 Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships
  • Delivering the final presentation for our first project as the UConn Consulting Group; this really solidified the legitimacy of something that I spent a lot of time pursuing

What advice do you have for today’s students or aspiring entrepreneurs?

Be proactive. Nobody is going to hand you the job you want just because you have a good GPA and went to UConn. You need to do more – join clubs, network and utilize the resources around you.

What’s next for you?

While I can’t speak in specifics, my company is at a pretty pivotal time in its lifecycle and there are a few large initiatives that should come to fruition over the next 6-12 months. I’m also excited to be working with the Werth Institute to enhance outcomes for students interested in non-traditional career paths. As someone who had to jump through a lot of hoops, I’m hoping we can make it a bit easier for the next generation of UConn students.

Do you have any personal or professional goals you’d like to reach?

I don’t set specific goals such as obtain “X” job title or anything like that – at least not anymore. I like to stay flexible and setting goals sometimes inhibits your ability to think outside the box and be creative. Goal setting works in moderation. To answer the question - I want to gain more experience in my current field and see where it takes me.

What’s your favorite podcast at the moment?

Given the shift to work-from-home over the last year, I have unfortunately significantly cut down on my podcasts. My favorites to listen to on my commute were The Joe Rogan Experience, Stuff You Should Know and How I Built This.

Sumia Shaikh, ’15 (CAHNR)

Sumia Shaikh

Vice President & Marketing Lead, Visible Hands VC

Sumia Shaikh is a founding team member, investor, and VP of Marketing at Visible Hands VC. She leads marketing and brand for the firm and focuses on supporting portfolio companies in the digital health and wellness space.

Prior to joining Visible Hands VC full-time, Sumia was a Strategy Consultant at Vivaldi in New York City working on Brand, Innovation, and Growth Strategy projects for Fortune 500 tech clients. Before relocating to New York, she spent several years in the Boston startup ecosystem working on Partnerships and Program Management at a global accelerator called MassChallenge where she helped launch their Rhode Island and HealthTech accelerators. Furthermore, Sumia spent a few years working on Vertex Pharmaceuticals' Innovation and External Research (VIER) team as an internal innovation consultant on diverse, company-wide initiatives. Notably, Sumia's contributions helped VIER be named an Honoree for Innovation Leader’s 2019 IMPACT Awards for Best New Initiative and earned her three department-nominated awards.

Sumia graduated with honors from the University of Connecticut with a Bachelor of Science in Allied Health Sciences, and a concentration in Public Health and Program Management.

In her free time, Sumia likes to try new recipes, doing yoga, or spending time with her newborn baby girl.

Sumia Shaikh is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Became a founding team member of Visible Hands VC, a venture capital firm on a mission to highlight and invest in the limitless potential of overlooked founders, after becoming disenchanted with the lack of funding for underrepresented entreprenuers.
  • Rockstar mentor in Werth Institute's NetWerx program.
  • New mom to a beautiful baby girl!

How did you become interested in Venture Capital?

I became interested in venture capital after working at a startup accelerator with hundreds of founders and falling in love with the entrepreneurship and innovation space. After undergrad, I was recruited to work at MassChallenge in a partnership and program management role where I ran entrepreneurial boot camps, and managed relationships and research with corporations, foundations, government, and VCs. Surrounded by hundreds of brilliant problem-solvers working across industries, I quickly became enamored by the fast-paced, invigorating startup environment. I was energized by their unbridled optimism and creativity.

Despite loving working in this environment, I became disenchanted while supporting initiatives to help underrepresented entrepreneurs. Industry statistics consistently show how Black, Latinx, and female founders get less than 10% of VC dollars annually. This group consistently is underfunded and over-mentored. As much as I loved supporting programs and partnerships for this demographic, I was deeply disappointed in how accelerators and incubators fell short of providing actual dollars to overlooked founders.

After MassChallenge, I spent several years in Corporate Innovation and Brand Strategy Consulting to upskill myself. I hoped to join an early-stage startup or VC in a platform role one day. When Justin Kang reached out to me during the Summer of 2020 about starting Visible Hands, I knew I had to get involved. Visible Hands is different from any venture capital firm or accelerator that I have encountered. Visible Hands is a venture capital firm with 14-week, virtual-first accelerator on a mission to highlight and invest in the limitless potential of overlooked founders. At the earliest stages of company-building, we provide meaningful funding, personalized support, and social capital, helping our founders build exceptional technology startups. I love being a part of building it from the ground up and learning how to be an early-stage investor!

Why are entrepreneurship and innovation important to you?

Entrepreneurship and innovation represent the best of creativity and problem-solving to me. The best entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs that I meet are solving real problems validated by their customers or users. Additionally, they are not afraid to approach an old problem in a novel way. It’s intellectually stimulating and inspires me to always challenge my biases.

Furthermore, I see entrepreneurship and innovation as transformative means for economic mobility. Entrepreneurship and innovation can enable folks to generate generational wealth while working on issues that matter to them. Coming from a humble beginning, I've experienced firsthand how working in entrepreneurship and innovation allowed me to financially and professionally make leaps that I never thought might be possible.

Can you describe a time you took a risk? Did it pay off? If not, what lesson did you learn?

I am a pretty risk-friendly person (which probably explains my attraction to early-stage startups). For example, I moved to Boston without a job out of college and gave myself two months to figure it out. Additionally, joining MassChallenge while having no formal background or education in startups or business development was a risk that paid off as I learned about my passion for working with startups. Furthermore, joining Visible Hands in 2020 as a volunteer and going full-time before securing the funding for my specific role was a risk. I am fortunate that many of the risks that I have taken throughout my career have paid off. I’ve learned to bet on myself and trust my judgment in taking calculated risks.

How did UConn prepare you for where you are at today?

At UConn, my advisors and professors always encouraged me to pursue all my intellectual curiosities. This meant being able to audit classes in the business school, learning how to properly do research, or studying social entrepreneurship during the summer in Guatemala. My education at UConn taught me to take an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems. I learned to consider different points of view. I learned how to challenge my biases through my student involvement with organizations like the Asian American Cultural Center and UConn Empower. I am where I am today because I am insatiably curious and learned how to work with people from different backgrounds.

Tell us a little about your continued involvement with UConn. Why is it important to give back as a mentor?

I am the first person in my family to graduate with a college degree. Although I excelled in high school, I was not sure how I’d be able to afford college. UConn was one of the first organizations to believe in my potential. I went to school on a full-ride merit scholarship. I was deeply supported in my personal and professional journey by mentors at UConn. It’s important to me to give back as a mentor and pay it forward.

Describe a professional moment you are most proud of, and why?

I am most proud of the relationships that I’ve built with founders who I’ve worked with for the past six years that are still finding value in the relationship we have today. There are founders I’ve stayed in touch with since I started at MassChallenge where we chat periodically, or they reach out for advice. We usually chat about issues concerning go-to-market, partnerships, or ways that they can grow their team. One such company recently reached out to see if I’d be interested in joining their executive team. Although it wasn’t the best match, I was so honored to be considered!

Which business tool or resource do you recommend for entreprenuers, and why?

Entrepreneurship can be an arduous and lonely journey, but it doesn’t need to be. Having access to a community of other people who can share their learnings and understand the challenges of launching a company is powerful. One of the best values of our Visible Hands accelerator is the tight-knit cohort full of entrepreneurs who are always looking to support and learn from each other. I recommend that entrepreneurs seek out online or IRL communities like OnDeck, Founders Network, SCORE, etc.

What is your favorite UConn memory?

My favorite UConn memory has to be starting and building a student organization with my closest friends and classmates called UConn Empower. What began as conversations in Buckley turned into an organization that raised $15K, involved hundreds of students on campus, and did project-based consulting work with three non-profits in India, Cameroon, and the Dominican Republic. I learned so much about team building, marketing, community, and how to build programs and products that were useful to our users. I never considered it as "innovation" or "entrepreneurship" at the time because I was having so much fun. I learned a great deal about what it takes to build something.

What are you passionate about outside of work?

I am passionate about community, DEI, health and wellness, and human rights. I just had a baby two months ago and am enjoying spending my maternity leave bonding with my baby girl!

Geoff Matous, ’06 (CLAS)

Geoff Matous

President & Chief Commercial Officer, Wellinks

Geoff is President and Chief Commercial Officer at Wellinks, a virtual-first care company on a mission to help the 25 million Americans with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) live fully and breathe freely. Through its personalized approach to care, Wellinks partners with health plans and value-based care delivery organizations to help members live well with COPD and break the cycle of frequent hospitalizations. Wellinks has been named a Connecticut “Innovator of the Month” by Senator Chris Murphy and was recently awarded the Next Gen Telemedicine Rising Star Award from the UCSF Digital Health Hub Foundation. 

Over the course of Geoff’s six-year tenure with Wellinks, he has raised over $40 million in venture capital funding and has built partnerships with leading health systems, including Hartford HealthCare in Connecticut, and national payers.

A 2022 Hartford Business Journal “40 under Forty” honoree, Geoff is a founding member of the Digital Medicine Society’s IMPACT initiative for virtual-first care, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence with Connecticut Innovations, and serves on the regional Board of Directors of the American Lung Association and the Executive Committee for the New Haven Chapter of the American Heart Association. He resides in West Hartford with his family and is a proud and active alumnus of UConn. Go Huskies!


Geoff Matous is doing things WerthWatching:

  • President and chief commercial officer of Wellinks, a healthcare company offering the first-ever integrated, virtual COPD management solution.
  • Guided the company’s evolution from its original medical device focus and helped develop its current vision in digital health.
  • Geoff is a startup mentor through CTNext and UConn, advising local businesses on topics like company formation and commercialization.

What sparked your interest in the medical device and technology field? 

 

It all started with a referral from a friend who had recently entered the field, a few years after graduation. I’ve now been in healthcare for over 15 years, and I can’t see myself doing anything else professionally. The combination of the quality of the people you work with, the intensity of the problems you’re partnering to solve and the impact that innovation in this field can have on the patient and our world -- it's incredibly rewarding.  

 

You are part of a group of generous alumni matching donations made during the upcoming UConn Gives. Why did you choose to support The Werth Institute, and how does its mission resonate with your experiences and values?  

 

I’m in awe, frankly, of what David and the entire team at the Werth Institute have built and are growing. The common knock on Connecticut, and specifically entrepreneurship or innovation in this state, is a tendency to think too small. Everything that The Werth Institute stands for is larger-than-life but what makes it special is how practical and hands-on the work is. You have this program meeting students where they are and giving them resources and access to mentorship, all wrapped around this incredible education at a Top 10 public university in UConn. Having spent some time with many of the students coming through The Werth Institute over the past few years, I know we’re in a position to leave that knock behind.   


I hope to be in a position someday where I can be philanthropic to the University at a larger scale. In the meantime, I’m looking for opportunities to sort of “lever up” donations by trying to be helpful to students, being an advocate for the University, and just staying connected as an alum. The Werth Institute and its mission provides a unique venue for that.
 

Why is giving back important to you, both personally and professionally? 

 

I’m lucky and grateful to have a number of mentors in my life, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without them. Giving back to the community, and to the University in particular, is about honoring them and giving others access to the same opportunities that people have given to me.  

 

How has your entrepreneurial mindset influenced your approach to leadership? 

 

I think I’ve built a strong appreciation and empathy for what it takes to exist in an entrepreneurial environment. I see my leadership role as keeping the heads and hearts of the team in shape to take on the challenges and opportunities that come our way. I’m always working towards being able to consistently do what former Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mulally put as—lead with a compelling vision, comprehensive strategy and relentless execution plan.  

 

As a startup mentor working with companies through CTNext and UConn, what advice do you share with young entrepreneurs?  

 

At least recently, I’ve been talking a lot about two things.

First, find comfort in the questions. We’re wired to seek answers to everything. I’m not particularly good at this yet myself, but I think it’s important to spend more time in the unknown as an entrepreneur and to really break down big questions into sets of smaller questions before we try to construct the perfect answer. There’s a lot of value in those next levels of thought. If we immediately try to put a nice clean answer around the first question

The second is around entrepreneurship through acquisition, or ETA. Being a startup or zero-to-one entrepreneur isn’t the only path and there might be unique opportunities in a more buy-then-build type approach.  

 

Can you share an instance where you took a risk? Did it pay off? If not, what lesson did you learn from the experience? 

 

I suppose it was a bit of a risk to move from the big companies and relative safety of the medical device sales career I was in for nearly a decade and make the leap to a startup. Though it didn’t feel like it. I’m happy with that decision, it’s opened up a world of opportunity and the journey has been gratifying.  

 

What’s your favorite UConn memory and how has your connection to the university influenced your professional journey?

Last fall we lost a great man and teacher with the passing of Charles (Pete) Peterson, who founded and built up the Program for Sales Leadership which has since become the Professional Sales Leadership minor in the School of Business. Pete had such a positive impact on the lives and careers of everyone who went through his program. I’ll always cherish the fond memories of Pete, his courses, his friendship, and how intensely he cared about helping people be their best.  

 

Which business tool or resource do you recommend to others, and why?  

 

If you’re an entrepreneur in Connecticut, I recommend building a relationship with Connecticut Innovations. 

 

What’s your go-to karaoke song? 

 

Mr. Big “To Be with You” 

 

What are you passionate about outside of work? 

 

Spending time with my family, rooting on the UConn Huskies and playing golf.  

Travis Bloom ’13 (BUS)

Travis Bloom

Co-founder and CTO of Pawlicy Advisor

Travis Bloom is the co-founder and CTO of Pawlicy Advisor, a pet insurance marketplace focused on helping consumers find the right plan at the best possible price. The company, which was founded in 2018, has raised more than $7.5M of venture capital and helped millions of pet parents ensure their dogs and cats get the best care possible.
Travis started his career in General Electric’s IT Leadership program after graduating from UConn in 2013. He lives in midtown Manhattan with his wife Meghan (UConn ‘13) and cat Ginny.

Travis Bloom is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Using data to make buying the best pet insurance easier
  • Left a career at General Electric to join a small startup
  • Pawlicy Advisor team grew from 3 to 10 full-time employees in just 5 months

What led you to entrepreneurship and the pet industry?

Since high school I’ve been obsessed with the idea that companies were leveraging the power of the internet to disrupt existing industries and create entirely new ones. I always knew I wanted to start my own business but wanted to make sure I had solid business and technical foundations before taking the leap.

My interest in pet insurance started in 2018 when my wife and I adopted our cat, Ginny. I bought insurance thinking it was the thing all responsible pet owners did. After diving into the industry more with my business partner Woody I realized that only 2% of pet owners in the US had insurance, that number was doubling every 3 years, and there were mature markets like the UK and Sweden that had 30-50% penetration. Once we realized our marketplace could be the catalyst to make pet insurance mainstream in the US, we were off to the races.

What type of impact is Pawlicy Advisor having, and where do you see yourself and the company in the next year?

Selling insurance might not sound like the sexiest startup idea, but once you learn more about the cost of animal care in the US the business impact really starts to hit home. Economic euthanasia, where pets are put down with treatable conditions because the costs are prohibitively expensive, is a massive problem. When we educate pet parents about their insurance options, we aren’t just financially protecting their wallet, we’re also potentially saving their pet’s life.

In addition to helping consumers navigate their insurance options, we’re also the trusted advisor for veterinarians who want to increase insurance adoption at their practice, but don’t want to recommend one specific brand. By trusting an unbiased, data-driven, 3rd party like Pawlicy Advisor, they have the peace of mind that their clients are getting personalized financial advice from licensed insurance agents.

We’re growing rapidly and don’t plan on slowing down! We were a team of 3 people on January 1, 2021, and by May we were 10 full-time employees with plans for additional expansion later this year. By the end of next year, we’re focused on partnering with the majority of the vets in the US.

How did UConn prepare you for your entrepreneurial path?

The amazing professors in the UConn Business School’s OPIM department helped me bootstrap my initial software development knowledge. Using that base of knowledge, I launched a course-ranking web app during my final year at UConn. When it came time to select classes, I had ⅓ of the student body using it to see what their classmates were saying about professors and different electives. Professor Shanker in particular was a great mentor: while every other student was focused on interviewing for traditional jobs, he was encouraging me to pursue entrepreneurship full-time.

What’s your favorite UConn memory?

I was an active member of Greek life at UConn (AEPi) and have a ton of great memories from homecoming and other brotherhood events. UConn Men's Basketball also won two national championships during my time at school. Despite all those amazing events, taking my now-wife out on our first date during spring of senior year is probably my favorite. 🙂

Where do you find your inspiration?

I find inspiration by learning about the problems other companies have solved and how they went about finding product-market fit. The first few years of a startup are the messiest, but also the most creative. There’s some amazing podcasts and books that dive deep into the early years at some of the world’s most successful brands. Hearing their struggles and eventual successes helps me key in to how I should be thinking about our own product strategy at Pawlicy Advisor.

Describe a time you took a risk. Did it pay off? If not, what lesson did you learn from it?

I started my career at General Electric in their IT Leadership Program, a 2-year rotation they use to groom future leaders of the business. I had an amazing experience during my time there and had multiple full-time offers rolling off the program but opted to leave to join a small 25-person startup in NYC.

The decision was not an easy one to make, but ultimately, I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t take the leap now and try early-stage startups, I might never have the courage. The fear of regret motivated me to take the leap. I used the same decision-making process when I was debating leaving my full-time job and forgoing a salary to start Pawlicy Advisor. Once I realized I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t try, the choice became obvious.

What advice do you have for today’s students or emerging entrepreneurs?

If you’re the kind of person who can take the leap to entrepreneurship right out of school, I have nothing but respect. If you think you’d benefit from a few years of professional career development before taking the plunge, that’s completely fine as well. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to starting a business and you should trust your gut rather than trying to emulate Mark Zuckerberg’s journey.
Also, buy pet insurance 🙂

Do you have a professional moment you are most proud of and why? 

Closing our Series A round at the end of 2020 was incredibly gratifying, not just because it meant we could continue to scale and build a massive business, but also because of the impact COVID had on us in early 2020. We made a lot of bet-the-business product decisions in early/mid 2020 that paid off in the second half of the year.

Which business tool or resource do you recommend to others, and why? 

I’m a big believer in data. As a founder, you need to have comprehensive user analytics to understand how people are using your product. There are a million solutions out there but I like Mixpanel.

Jack Tarca, ’22 (BUS Management)

Jack Tarca Headshot

Founder, Find The Good Brand/UConn Entreprenuer in Residence

Get to know Jack Tarca, the Werth Institute's new Entreprenuer in Residence with Championship Labs.

What do you do now and how did you get where you are?

I am pursuing my mission driven apparel brand full-time, while becoming the first Entrepreneur in Residence at the Werth Institute here at UConn. I was able to achieve success with my company while a student at UConn, using the resources, network, and knowledge found all throughout UConn’s ecosystem. Most important, I never stopped putting ideas into action.

What do you find most fulfilling about your job?

Seeing an idea go from idea to reality. Whether it’s a physical piece of apparel that we’re developing, an inspiring post about well-being, or a new e-commerce strategy we’re implementing, taking something in your head and proving its success in the real world never gets old.

How do you help your organization use business to have a positive impact on the world?

We aim for our business to positively impact anyone who’s engaging with our brand. Whether it’s through our content or purchasing a product, we want to add value to everyone who hears about our business. We’re in the business of helping people live happier and healthier lives. We do this through spreading our mantra of “finding the good”. These three simple words have been proven to have a positive impact on thousands of people’s lives. From spilling your morning coffee, to making it through months of rehabilitation for a mental disease, our community has told us that these three simple words were the reason they were able to get through the day.

Which business tool or resource do you recommend to others, and why?

I recommend “Notion”, it’s a project management and note-taking application. You can use it for personal use or at a business level. It’s user friendly, organized, but also has the ability to be customized as you see fit. I use it for storing brand assets, writing all sorts of copy, calendars, and collecting inspiration via photos and links. It does it all, without being overwhelming.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned so far since graduating?

In my two months after graduating, I’m still adjusting to working full-time and not having any assignments due at 11:59pm on Husky CT. In this short time, I’ve learned that I have new goals for the first time in four years. Throughout college my main goals were graduating, landing a job, and building a brand. It’s interesting to have to re-evaluate goals that have been set for so long, but also exciting to take on new challenges. Every milestone I’ve hit post-graduation has also meant creating a new one, which is sometimes more difficult than achieving the milestone itself. The lesson here is to always be ready for what’s next.

What is the best advice you've ever received?

Done is better than perfect.

What did your time at UConn mean to you?

My time at UConn was invaluable. I gained confidence to pursue my ideas that hadn’t been proven yet, as well as the perseverance and resources to see them through to reality. UConn for me was a place to test ideas and fail, knowing that there were resources available to help me learn from my mistakes was crucial as I began my entrepreneurial journey.

What are you passionate about outside of work?

I’m passionate about the ocean. I try to spend as much time on the water as I do on land. From fishing, to boating, to surfing, you can find me on the water when I’m not working. At Find The Good Brand we talk about finding your “spot”, it’s like a happy place you go to, to practice mindfulness. The ocean is my favorite “spot”.

What's next?

Next, I’ll be heading back to UConn to build resources for student athletes and social media influencers to help grow accessibility in entrepreneurship at UConn. The world of college athletics has been changed forever and I’m excited to be at the forefront of such an impactful movement for NIL.  I will also continue to build Find The Good Brand, when I’m not busy helping students at UConn pursue their passions.

Cassandra Bodzak ’09 (BFA)

Cassandra Bodzak

Best Selling Author of “Eat with Intention” and the upcoming “Manifesting Through Meditation” (available for pre-order now). Host of the “Divine Downloads” podcast and creator of the Transformational Online Program “Divinely  Design Your Life.”

Cassandra Bodzak is a thought leader, best-selling author and sought after on-camera personality and speaker in the mindfulness and personal development world. She is also the host of the popular spiritual podcast, "Divine Downloads.” You may have seen Cassandra on ABC’s “The Taste” with Anthony Bourdain as the “happy, healthy living guru” or in her work with SHAPE, Eating Well, Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, Thrive, Fabletics, Lululemon, SoulCycle and many more. She has been called “an award-winning thought leader and intuitive coach” in Forbes and “a spiritual leader” by Well + Good. Cassandra helps people all over the world learn The Process for bringing their soul's desires into their everyday reality through her online group program, “Divinely Design Your Life,” as well as through all the free content she shares on her YouTube and social media.

Cassandra Bodzak is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Best-selling author
  • Helps people create their “next level” life through food, meditation and self-care
  • Started a recipe blog in college after being sick with food allergies that has become a holistic lifestyle source

What led you to mindfulness and personal development as a career?

My own healing journey led me to my career in personal development. It was through using the tools that I now teach about during some of the most dark and confusing moments of my life, experiencing these tools transform my life that I knew I had to share them with others. I often feel like this career chose me, it was so naturally a part of who I am and what I believe in.

Tell us about your upcoming book. 

Manifesting Through Meditation, walks you through my four-step manifesting process for creating the life you dream of and has 100 specially curated meditations to assist you in transform your life from the inside out. This book is great for anyone who wants to begin a meditation process or for those who are ready to utilize their meditation practice to start consciously creating their life. 

How did UConn prepare you for where you’re at today? 

I definitely learned a strong work ethic from my time at UConn that I still have today. I also received a lot of critical feedback and learned how to believe in myself in the face of adversity from my time earning a BFA at UConn. 

Where do you find your inspiration? 

My inspiration comes from following what lights me up, honoring my soul’s desires and you bet… my meditation practice! 

Describe a time you took a risk. Did it pay off? If not, what lesson did you learn?

My whole career has been a huge risk. Being willing to create your own path and march to the beat of your own drum when there’s not a well-worn path in front of you can be terrifying. It has paid off beyond my wildest dreams and continues to do so as long as I keep taking risks!

What’s your favorite UConn memory?

My favorite memory at UConn was getting to perform in a play called “4:48 Psychosis” by Sarah Kane. It was a three-woman cast and the experience embodying such a deeply disturbed and complex character was one that made me feel so alive. That play and working with its director, Christin Kennelly, was such a highlight of my time at UConn and brought me such confidence in my work.

What advice do you have for today’s students or emerging entrepreneurs? 

Follow your passion. Ignore what you “think” is going to make you money and pursue the thing that sets your soul on fire. Use your time at UConn to try out different things, take different classes, create things in your spare time and explore what that thing you feel deeply drawn to doing is. PS. - Don’t be scared if no one else is doing it yet either – maybe you are meant to create it!

What advice do you have for young future female entrepreneurs when it comes to work/life balance?

There is no such thing as balance! Stop chasing some perfect way of doing things, it doesn’t exist. You have to take care of your body – eating healthy, sleeping enough, getting sunshine and movement – you need to remember that NOTHING works when YOU don’t work. So do your best to keep yourself in working order but realize that sometimes your passion, your project and your calling will have you putting in more time than the average bear. That’s okay!

Describe a professional moment you are most proud of, and why? 

Being on “The Taste” on ABC and having Anthony Bourdain call me his favorite vegetarian was very cool. I think I’m most proud of being on that show because it took so much courage and belief in myself to hang with so many extraordinarily talented chefs who already had a slight bias to my healthy cooking and get them to open their mind.

Which business tool or resource do you recommend to others, and why? 

I recommend two Steven Pressfield books, “The War of Art” and “Turning Pro” to any entrepreneur or ambitious individual out there. He talks all about honoring our creative calling, showing up to our work and beating the resistance and fear that we all inevitably face.

Of course, I obviously also recommend Manifesting Through Meditation, because that is the secret sauce to everything I have been able to create in my life thus far!

What are you passionate about outside of work?

I am passionate about traveling, exploring other places, countries, cultures, food, traditions, etc. It’s expansive and soul nourishing for me. Travel is such medicine and gives such great perspective in my experience.