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.

Matt Cremins ʼ13 (ENG) ’14 MS

matthew cremins

Co-Founder of CivilTalk

Matt invented Smartwell, a flavored and sparkling water dispenser, and subsequently started his first company, Voda, around this idea. Dubbed the "next generation water cooler,’’ Matt sold Voda in 2019 and went to work on his second startup, CivilTalk. Hearing his mom’s frustration with the combative nature of social media, Matt wanted to find a way for people to have a voice online without the noise of trolls and negative comments. Matt and his team developed CivilTalk with a mission to connect people with each other so they can listen, learn and collaborate on solutions without the fear of being shut down or drowned out. Users are required to prove their identity before joining and choose who they engage with. With CivilTalk, the focus is on issues and solutions, not political parties.

Matt got his start in entrepreneurship with guidance from the School of Business, School of Engineering and UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP), which provided a home base for Voda along with support with a business plan, investor pitches and connections with potential investors and business partners. He was also one of the first graduates of the School of Business’ Innovation Quest (iQ), a competition that helps students turn their ideas into a business. (Click here to take a look at the most recent iQ winners). 

Matt Cremins is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Launched his first startup while a student at UConn
  • Sold that company in less than six years
  • Co-founded a new online community creating change through civil discussion

What was it about starting a company that appealed to you? 

The opportunity to make a difference, and in the case of CivilTalk, help our country ascend from the current hostile and divisive political climate.

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

UConn exposed me to entrepreneurship and how to take an idea and turn it into a product, and ultimately start and grow a company.

What’s your favorite UConn memory?

UConn men’s basketball winning the 2011 NCAA Championship. I watched every game of the tournament with my friends, and I remember being in Gampel for the finals and the atmosphere was once in a lifetime.

Where do you find your inspiration? 

My desire to do good in the world and to give back for the amazing life I have had and continue to have. It’s such a gift to be alive and enjoy life...I feel the best thing you can do with your life is to give back in some way. I do that through entrepreneurship.

How do you define success? 

Success is an inner peace in knowing that you gave your entire effort to achieve a goal. It’s not the result if the goal was achieved or not, but the inner peace knowing you gave it your all.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, in business or in life? 

Everyone gets knocked down at some point - be someone who gets up again and again.

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

Seek the advice and support of great mentors. At UConn, the mentor network is incredibly giving and wants to help - take advantage of that opportunity!

What advice do you have for fellow Huskies, especially as they navigate the changing business landscape? 

I would say remember what Wayne Gretzky said: “Skate to where the puck is going,” i.e. learn the skills that will be applicable in tomorrow’s world.

Do you have a professional moment you are most proud of? If so, why? 

Yes - the few weeks leading up to selling my first company, Voda, were extremely stressful. I was negotiating the sale terms and learning many M&A topics and legalese on the fly. I’m proud of how I navigated those stressful times to a great outcome.

What’s next for you? 

I am the co-founder of CivilTalk, a civic engagement service that is helping our country ascend from the current hostile and divisive political climate. Our amazing team has been working on CivilTalk for almost 3 years now, and we just launched! Time to grow!

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

I would like to travel all around South America in the next few years!

What’s your favorite podcast at the moment? 

“How I Built This” by Guy Raz!

Leila Daneshmandi ’20 PHD (Biomedical Engineering), ’21 MS (Global Entrepreneurship)

Leila Daneshmandi

Co-Founder and COO, Encapsulate

Dr. Leila Daneshmandi is an Assistant Professor in Residence of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UConn School of Engineering and within the Biomedical Engineering Department. She is the co-founder and COO of Encapsulate, a biotech startup in cancer precision diagnostics that has raised over 1M in non-dilutive funding and that is conducting preclinical studies in partnership with Hartford Healthcare. Encapsulate has received numerous awards and accolades nationally and internationally including the prestigious Technology-in-Space Prize for $653k from the International Space Station US National Laboratory and Boeing. Leila is a Women of Innovation finalist, selected by the Connecticut Technology Council and Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology; has been awarded the Entrepreneur of the Year for Scalable Venture Award by the Connecticut Entrepreneur Awards; and was invited to give a TEDx Talk on her professional and personal journey. She holds five patents and has authored over 12 peer-reviewed publications. Leila currently teaches Technology Innovation & Entrepreneurship I & II, an experiential entrepreneurship course open to all students in Engineering, Business, and Digital Media and Design, and develops programs for student and faculty entrepreneurial growth and development within the school.

Dr. Leila Daneshmandi is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Co-founder and COO of Encapsulate, a biotech startup offering a revolutionary technology in cancer treatment that grows patient-derived cancer cells outside of the body, and screens them against chemotherapeutic drugs so the oncologist can choose the most effective chemotherapy prior to treatment on an individualized basis
  • Received the Technology-in-Space Prize from the International Space Station US National Laboratory and Boeing
  • Awarded the Entrepreneur of the Year for Scalable Venture Award by the Connecticut Entrepreneur Awards

What got you interested in entrepreneurship?

I’ve always been curious, passionate about learning, and have had a problem-solving solution-seeking mindset. I think more than anything entrepreneurship is about having that problem-solving mindset and willingness to learn and grow. I took a course in entrepreneurship, the same course I’m teaching now, Technology Innovation & Entrepreneurship. There I was asked to form a team with students from different backgrounds to work on an idea, a company, which eventually grew to become Encapsulate.

What led you to cancer treatment technology?

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the US and worldwide. Approximately 40% of the US population will have cancer at some point in their life. That means one person per every household. At the same time, there’s been an increase in the number of drugs that are available to treat cancer. The issue in cancer treatment isn’t the unavailability of effective drugs. It’s getting the right drug to the patient, in time, to maximize their chances of having a successful treatment. 

Where do you find your inspiration? 

I get inspired by people, stories and working towards a bigger purpose.

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

Well, if there’s a risk you want to mitigate it as much as possible so that the decision you make in the end is as informed as possible and not by chance. For the risks that I’m thinking of right now, at the time I learned as much as I could about the situation. Part of this is admitting what you don’t know and are not as well-informed in, so you can seek help from outside resources (books, people, peers, mentors) to educate yourself. It all falls under identifying and filling in the gaps for the “known unknowns” of the situation – things we know that we don’t know and trying to minimize the “unknown unknowns” – things we don’t know that we don’t know – by extending our knowledge on the situation as much as possible.

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

I owe a huge part of where I am today to UConn. I’ve spent most of my 20s at UConn from when I first came for grad school, so it definitely has had an influence on who I am. I’ve met some incredible people here that have been mentors to me throughout my professional journey and I also started my start-up at UConn and begun my entrepreneurship journey here. My PhD definitely instilled a go getter attitude in me, to take on problems that come my way, and to do my absolute best to find a solution for them. I also learned a lot of hard and soft skills throughout my PhD, the courses that I took, and through building my own company including research, critical thinking, project and people management, resilience, empathy, independence and communication.

What’s your favorite UConn memory?

Favorite memory from UConn would be the graduation ceremony. We were fortunate to have an in-person ceremony this year where we got to wear our gowns and walk. I wasn’t able to attend my undergraduate graduation ceremony and so it was very special to me. Other than that, fun times in the lab with my lab mates.

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

I would say be curious, have an open mind and question everything. Be willing to learn and grow. And stay humble. And kind.

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

Hmm, there’s a lot actually. Being awarded the Technology in Space prize from the International Space Station and Boeing was a proud moment at MassChallenge Boston, especially because of everything that went into putting the application together. I, myself, am proud of my TEDx Talk and how I talk about the human behind all these accomplishments and throughout this journey.

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

Keep track of all your projects and goals, both long-term and short-term, prioritize and plan around them. Take notes from your meetings with mentors or peers who offer feedback on your work so you can go back to them. And use LinkedIn to reach out and extend your network. 

What are you passionate about outside of work?

Human rights, hiking, nature and woodworking.

Ashley Kalinauskas ’12 (CAHNR)

Ashley Kalinauskas

Founder & CEO, Torigen Pharmaceuticals Inc.

More than 50% of all dogs over the age of 10 die from cancer. UConn alumna Ashley Kalinauskas is part of a team working to change that. Ashley is founder and CEO of Torigen Pharmaceuticals, a veterinary biotech company that is leading the way in animal oncology by harnessing the pet’s immune system to fight cancer. Torigen’s team of clinical researchers and veterinary professionals create personalized cancer immunotherapies tailored for each patient by using their deactivated tumor cells, giving them a tool to fight cancer that doesn’t involve the potentially painful side effects of chemotherapy.

Ashley Kalinauskas is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Made Forbes’ “30 under 30” list
  • Secured $1.8M in Series A financing
  • Helping save dogs’ lives

Ashley is focused on delivering an accessible and affordable alternative to chemotherapy to the general public and is leading Torigen’s growth to meet this need. With a team of 18 employees, Torigen has treated nearly 500 cases this year alone, with over 1,000 animals treated with the VetiVax treatment since its inception in 2017 (with limited side effects). Treatment is offered through veterinary oncologists as well as general vet practices at a fraction of the cost of chemotherapy. 

Along with providing hope to pet parents, Torigen is also collecting valuable data from these tumors and tracking trends, which has resulted in a new product backed by new patented technology. The company recently completed a series A round funding and has a goal to raise $10 million by year-end. 


A Calculated Risk Taker 

Entrepreneurship was always the plan for the Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree. Ashley graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2012 with an undergraduate degree in Pathobiology and Veterinary Sciences and went on to complete her master’s at the University of Notre Dame, where she came up with the idea for Torigen as part of her thesis to develop a viable business plan. She was offered a job at a medical device company but turned it down to pursue Torigen.

“I like to build. That’s why entrepreneurship has always appealed to me. I like to see a project from start to end and wear multiple hats. Entrepreneurship is about being able to put your elbow grease behind something, knowing that work can change the world.”

Ashley moved back to her home state of Connecticut where she had access to resources that would help shape the future direction of the company. “I’m a risk taker but it’s calculated risk taking,” said Ashley. “I didn’t pay myself a salary and lived with my dad because I knew Torigen had the potential to be so much more. So I went all in.”

Torigen received initial funding from Angel Investors and the UConn Innovation Fund, along with others. Through the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP), Ashley has dedicated laboratory space, access to unique research and development facilities, and advice from business experts and investors that has helped grow the company.

Torigen was on the cusp of closing fundraising in March of 2020 and had just hired a sales director when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “Investors pulled back funding and we had to scale down operations,” said Ashley. “Everything I worked for was slipping between my fingers. But these challenges made us work harder. We went back to the lab and focused on product development, filing a patent in the summer from data and research done in the spring. Because things were a lot slower, we had the time to understand the future direction we wanted to take the company and be more nimble. People were at home with their pets more and able to see when things were wrong, which led to the vet industry booming. We were able to ride that trend but also had this new data that combined, helped us grow faster.”

“Mentorship is the best tool to understand and see through some of the emotion change can bring from people who have been through it,” she said. “The Werth Institute is helpful for building that UConn network. There are so many different areas and resources for help, mentorship, investment dollars and being able to find great avenues to grow. Werth is the first steppingstone to get to that next level by showing you the financials, how to develop a business pitch and a business plan, how to have a profitable business and how to pivot when you need to pivot.” 

So what’s on the horizon for Ashley? 

“I love being an entrepreneur and definitely see myself being a serial entrepreneur. I also like venture capital quite a bit and think that by being an entrepreneur and seeing the struggles from start to finish, not only can I be a great mentor for early-stage companies but can put together potentially a nice fund one day.” 

Dean Mahoney ‘09 (BUS)

Dean Mahoney

Founder & CEO, ‘Merican Mule

When Dean Mahoney and friends Pete Weil and Steve Pawlik saw people drinking Moscow mules in a Santa Monica bar, and found that liquor stores didn’t sell them pre-made, they realized they had an opportunity to create something new. By cashing out their savings, 401K’s and finding any spare change to contribute, they embarked on a mission, to build the brand from the ground up. Their mission: to deliver premium quality and ultimate convenience with the hottest cocktail on the market. After crafting the original beverage, Dean returned to the East Coast to spearhead distribution. He got a big break at the end of 2017, when a major liquor distributor agreed to add the company as a client. In 2019, the team launched their Mexican Style Mule with tequila, ginger and lime, as well as their Tropical Style Mule with rum, ginger and pineapple, as well as seasonal varieties.

Dean Mahoney is doing things WerthWatching:

  • ‘Merican Mule, based in South Norwalk, CT made its beverage debut with its reinvention of the popular Moscow mule cocktail.
  • The company has joined with the Bishop Family, founders of both the SoBe beverage company, which grew to a $220 million firm in just four years, and Blue Buffalo pet food, which became a $1 billion business. In addition to their role as investors, the family will advise and help guide ‘Merican Mule’s growth and brand-awareness strategy.
  • Dean is a mentor with the School of Business’ Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, has hired Huskies for marketing and sales positions, and is considering starting an internship program.

How is ‘Merican Mule changing the canned cocktail industry?

As a cocktail, the Moscow mule, made traditionally with vodka, ginger bee, and lime, has consistently ranked as a top searched cocktail on Google for many years.  You can’t miss the copper mug vessels at your local gastropub. ‘Merican Mule has been served as an upper echelon option for customers, crafted with in a variety of styles with premium spirits.  

Having founded the company in 2015, the brand is now viewed by many as one of the original canned cocktails to pave the way for the space. We continue to evolve every day and stive to provide the best in quality, taste, and experience. 

In comparison to the competition, ‘Merican Mule is the first to focus on delivering a slew of mules for both lovers of the cocktail and first-timers, using its proprietary ginger base. They are commonly described as balanced, smooth and refreshing. We make “Mules for the Masses,” including a Moscow mule with vodka, a Mexican Mule with tequila, a Tropical Mule with rum and pineapple and a Southern Mule with bourbon whiskey, as well as our seasonal Pumpkin Mule with vodka. No matter the customers' preference in liquor type and flavor profile, there is something for everyone. 

This year we launched a Mule Variety 8 Pack – the first canned cocktail to do so with four different liquor bases in one package, a huge point of differentiation versus seltzers and other canned cocktails that use the same liquor in their variety packs.

Where do you see yourself and the company in the next year?

The company expects to grow exponentially, outperforming growth numbers for the canned cocktail industry, as it has since inception.  As more individuals try the liquid, they become lifelong supporters of a brand that delivers a superior and highly differentiated taste and continue to spread ‘Merican Mule via word of mouth.  In 2021, we had exciting announcements to share including the expanded availability of our products in upwards of nearly 20 states.  We will also announce brand new Mules dropping early in the year, to further evolve our customer reach. The goal is to continue to make ‘Merican Mule a household name in each market that we are sold. 

How did UConn prepare you for your entrepreneurial path? 

UConn was a special place both socially and academically during my time.  Some of my best friends came out of my time during school, friends that have been at my wedding and continue to be meaningful people that have truly supported my entrepreneurial endeavors.

It’s so important to learn from your relationships and apply your personal experiences to how you approach building a business. It’s also important to have trustworthy outlets that you can rely on to share ideas and test the waters on whether an idea is worth pursuing. In terms of academics, the UConn School of Business provided a nice portfolio of core tools from finance to marketing, but even more interestingly, courses such as real estate and business law have helped when evaluating leasing office space or negotiating contracts.  

What’s your favorite UConn memory?

Hard to pick a favorite but rushing the court (and field) after some UConn basketball and football wins is a top contender.  Just seeing the enjoyment of all my fellow Huskies coming together when victorious is something that lasts for a short period of time, but the rush is incredible.

Where do you find your inspiration? 

Growing up, my family, including my parents and my brother, really pushed me.  They are so talented in each of their own ways and I wanted to prove that I could do something that could make an impact on the world.  Building an alcohol brand has so many benefits, from job creation to providing enjoyment in people’s lives.  Today, I am married myself, with an amazing wife, a 2-year-old, and a daughter on the way.  My inspiration has definitely shifted to continuing to learn so that I can be a role model for my kids and help them understand that they too can make an impact on the world if they work for it.

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

In 2015, ‘Merican Mule started as a hobby after drinks at the bar.  Eventually as the brand continued to grow, the demands became greater and greater.  It required more focus and attention to make sure it was successful.  

The risk of leaving a stable corporate job to pursue a business that was started on the back of a napkin will likely be one of the greatest risks of my life.  When speaking with aspirational entrepreneurs, I think this is a question that comes up often.  When is the right time?  

I believe that everyone had their own journey and that the answer will find them in time and determination. You need to be able to invest your full self to what you are building to give it the greatest chance for success. 

Did my risk pay off? I am learning more about business and frankly life than I ever could have imagined.  The opportunities, challenges and memories will forever change my perspective.

You recently hosted a dinner for students involved in the Stamford Startup Studio (S3) program. What advice do you have for today’s students or aspiring entrepreneurs? 

You might have heard of this thing called the 80/20 rule, which universally applies in many situations in life and business. When it comes to entrepreneurism, I find this rule to be of great importance. Many try to get a product or idea to 100% completion before a launch; however, I find it smarter to get to 80% completion. The reality is that you will learn a lot from your customers; finding out what they like and don’t like. This focuses your attention to tweak and make changes to your approach.  Anyone can have an idea, but entrepreneurs act on them.  

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

I’ve had a few that I am most proud of.  Anytime that I hire someone and end up learning something from that hire that I didn’t know before, it’s a proud moment.  You go into managing people thinking that you need to teach them everything.  In reality, your people learn your mission, they can teach you more than you can teach them. I think inspiring my own team and helping them realize what they’re capable of has been the most rewarding part of building a brand, and culture.

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

I’m all about the School of Google.  You can basically learn anything you want, just use the internet.  It’s going to come down to your motivation to pursue what you’re truly passionate about.

Leah Oppenheimer ‘12 (CLAS/IMJR)

Leah Oppenheimer

MBA Associate, SWAT Equity Partners

Leah is currently an MBA candidate at Columbia Business School (CBS) and MBA associate at SWAT Equity Partners, a venture capital firm for emerging entrepreneurial consumer brands. Prior to starting at CBS, she was a summer associate at LDV Capital and an investment associate at Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs (Techstars). Previously, she spent three years running platform and marketing for UpRamp, the industry accelerator/CVC for the connectivity industry (backed by Comcast, Charter, Cox and 60 others), and worked in business development for boutique consultancies in London. 

Leah Oppenheimer is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Focused on the human side of deep technology, and the impacts that entrepreneurs have on our everyday lives
  • As a summer associate, researched how visual technology is being deployed across the agriculture and food industries to have notable impacts on the global food supply
  • Graduated from the University of Cambridge with a MPhil in Education, and lived in London for three years working at several boutique consultancies in business development and thought leadership

What got you interested in working with startups/venture capital (VC)?

I actually got into VC by accident. I was contacted by a recruiter for an operating role at an accelerator in the video/broadband industry and learned about VC through that job - I had never heard of it before that! Since then, I’ve come to love the passion that early-stage founders have and how the job allows me to spend my day being curious and asking questions.

Where do you find your inspiration? 

I’m always really impressed by founders who worked in an industry, saw something missing, and decided to fix it - their nuanced understanding of the space, whether shown in unit economics and pricing or sales strategy - is so impressive to watch.

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

UConn gave me the freedom to conduct research on an area of interest to me (the sociology of education as it relates to war-torn societies). I don’t work in that space anymore, but the freedom given to me allowed me to carve my own path in the following years, leading me to where I am today.

What’s your favorite UConn memory? 

Walking around campus on the weekend in the fall! I love autumn in New England. Also study abroad - I had the fortune of going abroad twice (Granada and Maastrict) and loved both experiences.

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

Invest time into getting to know yourself and those around you - a strong network is important, but that starts with understanding your own strengths and desires and leaning into those!

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

Probably getting into Columbia Business School - it’s one of the few moments when it’s been very obvious to me how much effort and energy I put into something and seeing it all pay off in a calculated way.

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

Make yourself a good to-do list in any form that works for you - whether that’s Inbox Zero or a piece of paper. Especially in entrepreneurship, where you’re juggling so many balls, it becomes easier and easier to drop them - figure out a way that works for you that keeps that from happening.

What are you passionate about outside of work?

I love houseplants and have dozens of them. I’m also a big fan of technical driving roads - I recently did a really fun road trip along the coast of Italy!

Roma Romaniv, ’17 (BUS)

Roma Romaniv

Associate, Summit Partners 

Roma is an investor at Summit Partners focused primarily on the technology sector. Her investment experience includes CoderPad. Prior to Summit, Roma worked at Citigroup, most recently in the technology investment banking team and previously as an equity capital markets analyst.

Roma holds a BS in finance and a BA in human rights, summa cum laude, from the University of Connecticut.

Roma Romaniv is doing things WerthWatching:

  • Roma is a rock star mentor, giving back to the UConn Consulting Group, of which she is an alumna, and Hillside Ventures
  • As a senior, Roma served as a manager with the Student Managed Fund where she oversaw a fund of over $2 million and had the opportunity to value and analyze multiple companies, skills she took to Citigroup following graduation
  • Fun fact – Roma is trilingual, speaking English, Ukrainian and Russian

How did you become interested in working as an investor?

I was always interested in how finance worked. I think that was the starting point – taking business courses, joining clubs and learning more about the world of investing. It was not something I knew much about growing up, so I wanted to learn and really understand it. After working at Citi and getting even more exposure to equity investing, I knew it was something I wanted to do.  

What role does entrepreneurship play in your career? 

I speak with company founders every day in my current role. I have a strong appreciation for entrepreneurs – their drive, work ethic and creativity. 

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

I decided to move to the west coast because I wanted to focus on technology in my career. All of my family and friends at the time were in the NY/CT area. I love living in SF and this move ended up leading to my current role. 

How did UConn prepare you for where you’re at today? UConn gave me the building blocks for a lot of the work I do today. The classes, especially accounting, were critical. SMF, UCG and other groups helped me prepare technically for a lot of work that I do. The UConn Alumni network has also been key. 

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

I really enjoy speaking with students and being available to give them advice, opportunity ideas or just listen. I participated in the Werth Mentoring program, am a mentor in the UConn Consulting Group and was an advisor for one of their recent projects. I also act as a mentor/advisory member for Hillside Ventures. I went to an insurtech conference for work and got to meet some UConn students in person – it was great to see them get this experiential learning! 

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

Pitching at a client meeting – it was still very early on in my career, and I had the opportunity to travel with seniors and meet potential IPO clients in person. I was proud that my managers trusted to put me in front of the client.  

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

Excel! (Just kidding that’s a joke). I am a big fan of videos and guides that teach you how to do things. Example (Ezra Okon – UConn alum) has YouTube videos on financial modeling that walk you through every step. Also, LinkedIn has been very important in my current role in building relationships with companies and founders.  

What’s your favorite UConn memory?

Cornell Stock pitch competition – we drove up to Boston. 

What are you passionate about outside of work?

Passionate about human rights/ESG improvement efforts/international relations. I am also a big fiction reader. 

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.

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!