09:27 AM

13th Chapter of the President’s Lecture Series Draws Full House

Entrepreneur Alums Share Wisdom, Humor, & Life Lessons


By Laura Wagner

Launched in 2021 by President Loren J. Blanchard, UHD’s President’s Lecture Series continues apace. The first of two fall 2023 events, “An Entrepreneur’s Journey: Conversations with Alumni Entrepreneurs,” was held Sept. 27 and featured four UHD alums who shared their experiences as entrepreneurs. 

Dr. Candace TenBrink, former entrepreneur and current Associate Professor, Strategy, Marilyn Davies College of Business, moderated the panel, which included Monica Lewis, CEO and Founder, The Monica Lewis School of Etiquette, and her husband Darian Lewis Sr. (’02), who serves as Chief Marketing Officer/COO of the company. Gabriela Smith (’14), Co-founder and CEO, Big State Construction, rounded out the panel. 

TenBrink asked the panel a series of questions about their origin stories, their biggest challenges (both starting out and continuing as small business owners), their strategies for overcoming slumps, and their most influential mentors. Their responses were candid, inspiring, informative, and often humorous. 

TenBrink concluded with, “What would you tell your 20-year-old self?”—a question that earned perhaps the most human responses from the panel: 

  • monica lewis sqMonica Lewis: Embrace your insecurities. Don’t run from them. Embrace them. My biggest challenge growing up was my lisp. In school, classmates would make fun of me. When I read aloud, students would hiss. So I stopped talking and reading aloud. When I was 21, I saw [television personality] Michael Strahan on TV. He has a lisp and a gap, and he’s a multibillionaire. I saw Bishop TD Jakes on TV, prominent evangelist, writer, etc., also with a lisp and a gap. That was my AHA! moment. I realized that if they can achieve all they’ve achieved with two issues, and I only have one, why can’t I succeed? Now my classmates can see me talking all over the television with my lisp. I even have a corporate class called,  ‘You Have a Lisp, So What?’ Embrace your insecurities. 

    darian lewis sq
  • Darian Lewis Sr.: Go to class. Take a chance and bet on yourself. Stop trying to live up to the expectations of family and friends, and go after the things YOU want. Celebrate your victories as they come and remember how you got there, so that when you’re in a season where there’s a downturn, you can look back and see how to replicate those wins. That helps lessen the impact of some of the blows. And ask for help when you need it. Oh, and get that GPA up. I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self that!
  • Gabriela Smith sqGabriela Smith: I would say thank you. I came to the U.S. from Honduras when I was 10. My parents divorced when I was 20, and my mom wanted me to move to Houston with her. I was enrolled in community college in New York. I didn’t want to move. I knew I would have to work to help pay bills and wouldn’t be able to go to school. But I believed that something else would happen for me. I believed that better things were coming if I just kept my focus on my education. At 25 [after having moved to Houston with her mother], I went back to community college [HCC], then got my undergraduate degree at University of Houston, then my MBA at UHD. So I would say to my 20-year-old self, ‘Thank you for listening to your gut feeling.’ 

The panelists took questions from students to close out the hour-and-a-half session. Vice President for Advancement and University Relations Javier “Jay” Zambrano thanked the panelists, the President, and the audience, encouraging students to spread the word to other students about the resources UHD offers, including access to local businesspeople like the panelists.President’s Lecture Series Sept. 27, 2023

“I am often in awe at the public presence of our alumni and the remarkable talent they offer the city of Houston,” Blanchard said in his opening remarks at the event. “I said this yesterday during the State of the University address, and I will say it again now. We need our alumni.” 




Photo credit: Luz Castilla Hincapie

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.