Business Superheroes! From the classroom to the boardroom

BGSU boasts alumni who are redefining their industries and the way the world does business


By Bridget Tharp

With a strong foundation of liberal arts studies and the resources of the College of Business Administration (CBA), BGSU has a proud tradition of preparing students to become savvy leaders and innovators in business, with dozens of alumni leading Fortune 500 companies and countless others successfully launching their own small businesses.

With nationally acclaimed faculty recognized for challenging students to reach such heights and diverse academic programs that emphasize hands-on learning through internship and co-op placement, the CBA is consistently rising in national rankings of business schools. The CBA ascended five places in two years to be ranked No. 90 in Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2013 “Best Undergraduate Business Schools” list, ranked No. 10 in the country among business schools in the Best for Vets: Business Schools 2013 by Military Times, and is listed among the “Best Grad Schools” in the country by U.S. News & World Report.

The University’s long-term strategy is even more ambitious: to bolster the regional economy so there are more job openings for BGSU graduates right here in the Buckeye State, and to open doors for graduates at the best companies across the nation.Though there is already plenty to brag about, the CBA faculty and new dean, Ray Braun ’80, are introducing additional tools to propel students to greater success. All business students now complete an applied four-year Business Experience class that provides hands-on, interactive learning. There is a new competition offering the ultimate prize to student entrepreneurs from across campus: start-up funding for a new business. And a new weeklong event, E-Week, has debuted to complement the Sebo Series in Entrepreneurship, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in April.

But the University’s long-term strategy is even more ambitious: to bolster the regional economy so there are more job openings for BGSU graduates right here in the Buckeye State, and to open doors for graduates at the best companies across the nation. It starts with preparing students for the job market with rigorous coursework from renowned faculty, and providing professional experience through co-op and internship placement in leading corporations through an aggressive expansion of partnerships between BGSU and companies across the United States.


One of the most promising new tools for fostering student success is The Dallas-Hamilton Center’s Falcon Hatchery — a selective entrepreneurial program for students of all majors who have unique business ideas. Students have nine weeks to work with an alumni mentor in order to further develop their business plans and prepare professional pitches for real investors during the competition phase: “The Hatch.”

Though most other universities simply offer modest cash prizes or trophies for such competitions, “The Hatch” boasts high stakes by offering start-up funding for the business ventures pitched by the BGSU student entrepreneurs. The concept borrows from the popular television show, “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurs have only a few minutes to convince investors to sink cash into their ideas. A crowd of more than 600 watched The Hatchery finalists’ investment presentations to a panel of alumni investors in April.

“Most other universities don’t actually fund student businesses. Ohio State, Harvard and MIT gives prizes,” Braun said. “We’re funding businesses, and that’s very exciting for the students.”

Finalist Krysten Jablonowski, a computer science major and entrepreneurship minor from Perrysburg, Ohio, dreams of launching a furniture business that targets college students in residence halls. Her mentor pushed her to test her idea and develop it further during their weekly phone sessions.

“I would not have my business plan this far along or my financials in order without the Hatch,” Jablonowski, a senior, said. “My idea is definitely more viable. Maybe I’d have started a business 10 years from now. Now, it could be in a year.”

Jablonowski’s mentor, Paul Hooker ’75, owner and CEO of SFERRA linen company, said he had “a lot of fun” helping her to prepare for the competition. He urged her to better define her target customer and to study alternative business models. She took his advice, focusing on furniture sales rather than her original idea of rentals.

Another finalist, junior Kyle Dickman, an individualized business entrepreneurship major from Cincinnati, competed for funding for what will become his second venture. He was a first-year student when faculty member Dr. Gene Poor inspired him to launch his own water sport equipment business, Bros Boards. It has been three years since he sold his car for start-up funding, business is still growing and his pitch is his post-graduation plan: to open a wakeboard cable park.

“If I hadn’t taken (Poor’s) class, I don’t know if I’d be in the same position I am,” Dickman said. “He has a different teaching style. He’s so enthusiastic about entrepreneurship, you can really tell, and it gets me pumped up about it.”

The largest funding went to senior Scott Hodges, an individualized studies in education major with a minor in marketing. A Sacramento, Calif., native who loves to cook, Hodges took his idea for a late-night taco truck called Bueno from the mobile food movement that has swept Western states, and the panel of investors agreed that his idea was indeed a good one. Four of the five investors each pledged $10,000 to help launch his business.


Perhaps the most effective measures of academic programs are the long-term successes of its alumni. Bowling Green State University has produced business leaders who are redefining their industries and the way the world does business. BGSU alumni are at the top of their game, continue to appreciate the faculty who prepared them for success, and are willing to share their knowledge with students and fellow alumni.

Maryrose Sylvester ’87, president and CEO of GE Lighting, is driven to be a luminary for other women rising in the business world.

She directly correlates her BGSU experience with her professional success. She chose BGSU after many told her that businesses often sought out graduates of the former procurement and production management program (now supply chain management.)

“Bowling Green encourages students to study, work hard, collaborate and achieve. The BGSU faculty reinforce the value of a strong work ethic and its link to high performance,” Sylvester said. “GE is based upon a meritocracy — something I learned to value while at BG.”

She was a general business major until meeting Dr. Chan Hahn, faculty emeritus in procurement and production and Distinguished Teaching Professor. Hahn was tough. Once, he said, he gave a student an “F triple-minus.” At first Hahn “scared the heck out of me,” she admitted, but she changed her major to his specialty.

Sylvester always stood out, even though her program was especially rigorous, Hahn said.

“Maryrose was a very special student,” he said. “She was a very serious student. She was a natural leader of her team.”

Since joining GE Lighting as a sourcing leader in 1988, she has been promoted early and often. But an early big break meant taking a risk: an assignment as director of Sourcing for GE Lighting Europe in Budapest, Hungary, in 1995. The country was throwing off the chains of Communism and just beginning to introduce capitalism. Capitalism was new. She didn’t know the language. She and her husband were newly married, and the move was a challenge for a dual-career couple.

The risk paid off. She is now at the helm of GE Lighting, a $3 billion division of the Fortune 500 company General Electric, a global powerhouse with varied operations related to energy production, advanced manufacturing, finance, health and computer technology. She served as CEO of GE Intelligent Platforms and of the former GE Quartz before earning her current post.

A couple generations ago, the idea of a woman rising through corporate ranks in America was laughable. Though women have new opportunities, a huge gender gap remains for the most ambitious. Women fill only 4.2 percent of the top executive roles at Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit advocacy group.

That’s why Sylvester is so passionate about empowering other business women. In 1997 she helped to establish the GE Women’s Network, part of General Electric’s corporate effort to develop talent and drive culture change that allows leaders to reach their full potential.

“It’s not surprising that diversity hires diversity,” Sylvester said. “I have been fortunate to learn from some of the best at GE and now I am in a position to help the next generation.”

One of her mentors and former bosses is Charlene Begley, who is on health leave from her position as president and CEO of GE Home and Business Solutions and chief information officer for GE. Begley knows it takes practice to become the kind of leader Sylvester has become.

“She’s achieved a lot at a young age. So, I spent a lot of time coaching her on techniques for effective communication and helping her to gain confidence because she’s very, very good,” Begley recalled.

Sylvester is constantly preparing for the next chapter in GE Lighting history, what she calls “leading the lighting revolution” as older, traditional incandescent lighting is being rapidly replaced by energy efficient LED technology. And what about BGSU students who are preparing to follow her path?

“Work hard, hone your skill set, find ways to broaden your perspective and grow by trying new things and getting uncomfortable,” she advised. “Opportunities are not going to come find you. You have to be ready to compete in this world. You have to bring everything you’ve learned and show how you can make your company higher performing because you are on the team and play to win every day.”

Leading a major corporation is a team sport for Doug Cahill ’82.

Cahill’s staff meetings share the energy of a pre-game pep talk, and he fosters a spirit of camaraderie by listening to ideas generated on every rung of the corporate ladder — from the factory floor up. The former student-athlete has transformed companies and increased corporate profits by approaching risk from a team perspective, a business philosophy he’s based largely on the leadership style of legendary BGSU Men’s Golf Coach John Piper.

During his three years as CEO of the vacuum manufacturer Oreck, Cahill inspired fierce loyalty from the entire staff, said Kim Nowell, chief people officer at Oreck.

“He’s not a yeller, or a berater. He really treats people with respect,” Nowell said. “And when it comes to our failings . . . he’s there to coach or counsel you through it, but he expects you to come up with resolutions.”

Cahill pushed higher expectations and the most expansive modernization in the tradition-driven vacuum manufacturer’s 50-year history. Under his watch, Oreck introduced new lines of air filtration systems and steam cleaners, redesigned its website and launched its first non-infomercial television spots.

He also incorporated consumer feedback in new ways, and embraced any opportunities to greet customers.

“He’s very inclusive,” said Bill Papettas, vice president for specialty retail at Oreck. “That’s part of his leadership DNA. When he’s out visiting our stores, he’s interviewing everyone in the store.”

Cahill, who left Oreck after the company was sold in April, was regarded as a turn-around artist in business circles long before his 40th birthday. He has joined a private equity firm where he will be coaching various CEOs in their portfolios.

In 1991, as head of Olin Corp’s swimming pool chemical division, he stripped leadership titles that he connected to an “entitled, bureaucratic” mindset of division leadership. Instead, Cahill named 14 staff as “coaches” and designated all others as “teammates” to better promote a customer-centered mindset. It paid off. Six months later, Cahill and his team were featured in Fortune Magazine for their unique approach.

His next move: Take pet food company Doane Petcare from regional brand to global leader. During his eight-year tenure as president, Doane quadrupled its number of manufacturing plants and stretched sales from $300 million to $1 billion per year in sales. He led the sale of the company to Mars Petcare, and it continued to expand during the recession. When he left in 2009, the enterprise had more than $4 billion in sales.

Phil Woodlief, the former chief financial officer for Doane Petcare, likes to think of Cahill as a coach who is “always trying to look for the positive in people.”

“He would say, ‘It’s a lot more fun and productive to focus on strengths,’” said Woodlief, now an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management. “He would coach and provide a path for everyone to build upon what they are really good at, so we would all shine together.”

His secret? Cahill’s professional philosophy is rooted in wisdom from his father.

“My father told me, ‘If you decide to lead people, you just have to make sure you put others in front of you,’” Cahill recalled. “And, ‘Don’t ever compromise on absolute integrity. There’s no gray. It’s right or it’s wrong.’”

“Fifteen-years-old is when I learned that, and I still use that in everything I do.”

He was just a high school senior and a BGSU men’s golf recruit when his father’s life was cut short after an eight-year struggle with kidney disease. Though Cahill wasn’t part of the BGSU Men’s Golf team yet, Piper and one of the players traveled to be with him at the funeral.

Piper remains a “very dear friend” and offered a perspective that seemed to pick up where his father left off, Cahill said.

“There was no way to do things except the right way,” Cahill said of Piper. “And he’s a servant leader. He always cared about others and didn’t put (himself) first.”

Cahill was a marketing major and vice president of the Marketing Club, but his leadership skills were apparent in his knack for working with the younger golfers on the Falcon team, Piper said.

“Doug had an excellent, high quality student-athlete mentality: Do good in everything you’re doing,” Piper said. “I knew the good qualities a student-athlete should have, and Doug is an outstanding example of those qualities.”

Vitamix CEO Jodi Berg ’88 assembles the ingredients of a seemingly odd breakfast recipe every morning and tosses them into one of the high-performance blenders manufactured by her company. In goes last night’s salad, an entire sliced apple, a stray vegetable or two, and any random fruit that may have escaped the appetites of her teenagers.

The result: a light green puree that tastes better than it looks, and packs way more nutrition than a traditional breakfast. Everything she needs is already in her refrigerator, and there is a lot of good stuff in there.

Berg’s breakfast is kind of like Vitamix, the Cleveland-area company her great-grandfather William G. “Papa” Barnard launched as a mail-order health food business seven decades ago. The brand was not widely recognizable when she joined its leadership team in 1996, but the good stuff was already in there.

Vitamix was on the cusp of major worldwide growth and in need of a new, modern strategy when Berg took the helm after spending most of her career in quality management and global branding within the hospitality industry. Vitamix was a major player in a niche health food market, but sales fluctuated wildly and were generated mostly via direct-mail advertising or infomercials.

Through interviews, the entire Vitamix workforce rated which longtime company values were most important to them: family, customers, quality, integrity and teamwork. The exercise offered leadership the framework for a new global strategy.

Today Vitamix household models fly off the shelves at more than 2,000 locations of such major retail chains as Costco, Williams Sonoma, Crate and Barrel, and Bed, Bath and Beyond. Professional-grade Vitamix equipment is used by baristas at Starbucks and Jamba Juice shops nationwide, and the brand is consistently popular among chefs and restaurateurs.

Net sales have also more than tripled in the past four years. Vitamix is preparing for a 51,000-foot expansion of its headquarters in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, and hiring 400 new employees for a new manufacturing center in Strongsville, Ohio, to join its 700 other full-time employees.

Her father and predecessor, John Barnard, credits his daughter’s exceptional public speaking, leadership and drive for identifying new global growth.

“One of the things you have to have in a leader is the focus and intelligence at the same time. That’s not a common trait. But Jodi, everything she’s touched since she came back to Vitamix has been successful,” Barnard said.

There’s no denying that Berg has big ideas and limitless motivation, which were qualities demonstrated by her faculty mentor, Carl Riegel, who served as chair of the former hospitality management program. As adviser to the hospitality management association, he often challenged the student group to think bigger.

“He’d be like, ‘Why are you stopping there? What are you allowing to limit you? Why wouldn’t you do more?’” Berg said. “He was always pushing us to expect more from ourselves.”

She worked closely with him as an undergraduate assistant in his department, which often called for her trying to keep up as his much longer legs efficiently carried him to meetings across campus. “Wherever he was going, he was going very, very fast, and he’s talking and thinking and creating or whatever he’s doing. And I’m running. We got a lot done that way,” Berg recalled.

She hasn’t slowed down since graduating from BGSU. But even as business is booming at Vitamix, the pace hasn’t changed the heart of the privately held, family-owned company.

“The power of a company is the people. That’s the most important part of your organization. My personal desire is to have a positive impact on every person who comes in contact with this organization,” Berg said.

For online shoppers, Bassel Ojjeh ’90 is the man behind the curtain. As CEO and co-founder of nPario, Ojjeh has introduced new data technology systems to allow businesses to use real-time consumer behavior to better reach their target audience with relevant online advertising.

Here’s how it works: a shopper is using the Web to research beach vacations in the Carolinas. For days and even weeks afterward, the shopper keeps seeing specialized advertisements for travel packages to other nearby sites along the coast.

Why? Because software developers like Ojjeh have developed methods to track consumer purchasing patterns online. nPario has recorded that shoppers spend an average of three weeks considering a vacation before making a purchase. That means competing vendors have only that much time to present a more desirable offer through targeted advertising. Likewise, flowers may be purchased in 45 minutes or less, while it may take up to 11 weeks to purchase a vehicle.

That’s incredibly valuable information to businesses. Not only are those who use such targeting technology more likely to successfully introduce their product to new consumers, but businesses also stand to save wasted advertising dollars, Ojjeh explained.

The industry of collecting and interpreting such data is new. The loudest critics of targeted advertising techniques and the Big Data industry suggest that using consumer information could infringe on personal privacy. Not so, Ojjeh counters. His company doesn’t store or use personally identifiable information such as home addresses or phone numbers, and actually gets better clues about a user’s preferences by their shopping behavior.

“The technology is about being able to advance how you do advertising to your client without infringing on privacy, and I think this is really key,” Ojjeh said. “What (nPario) is doing is looking at an anonymous user, somebody we don’t know the details of.”

"Why are you stopping there? What are you allowing to limit you? Why wouldn't you do more?"Berg recalled the challenge from BGSU faculty. The computer technology and Big Data industries were both starting to emerge and intersect when Ojjeh was a student at BGSU. After hearing from another student in his native Syria that Ohio was a good place to study business, he applied to and committed to attend BGSU. But it wasn’t long before the would-be business major discovered his true passion for computer science. He took several courses in business, and graduated with a major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Retired computer science department chair Dr. Mohammad Dadfar was a major influence, and helped him prepare for an opportunity to work at the former Fox Software in Perrysburg, Ohio. He gained valuable experience as a software developer for their database products. The company was purchased by Microsoft in 1992.

But what prepared Ojjeh most for his future was his well-rounded liberal arts education at BGSU, he said.

“Some of the courses I still remember, that are stamped in my head were completely unrelated to my field, to computer science. One course was geopolitics,” Ojjeh said. “It changed my life. It changed my perspective, not just about work, but it changed my perspective on how I read the news, how I look at geography, how I look at politics.”

Ojjeh most recently served as senior vice president of Strategic Data Solutions, a division of Yahoo. But he identifies himself as an entrepreneur. His first start-up was in his apartment above the hardware store in downtown Bowling Green, and nPario is his third start-up. With mobile phones advancing so quickly, he sees major opportunities to work with businesses developing new methods to reach consumers with convenience offers (think seeing a mobile coupon for the business you are strolling past).

The industry is changing so fast, and the best preparation for BGSU students who want to emulate his career would be to complete internships in different technology niches. But some of the best resources Ojjeh found were right on campus, he said.

“Every environment brings its own advantages and disadvantages,” Ojjeh said. “I hope the students are really taking advantage of what they have in front of them. It’s a small community, it’s a welcoming community.”

Updated: 07/10/2020 02:46PM