UHD Alumni Panel Shares Entrepreneurial Wisdom
Fall 2022 President’s Lecture Series Wrapup
By Laura Wagner
The Fall 2022 President’s Lecture Series wrapped up with “Breaking the Ceiling Through Innovation & Entrepreneurship: A Panel Discussion.” Three remarkable UHD alumni joined President Loren J. Blanchard and moderator Dr. Candace TenBrink, Associate Professor, Strategy, Marilyn Davies College of Business to share their hard-earned wisdom about building a business:
- Ashley DeWalt, Managing Director, DivInc. (sports entertainment/angel investor/nonprofit venture capital)
- Jason T. Hyman, Broker/Owner, Office of Jason T. Hyman (brokerage, urban planning, and infill development)
- Trisha Lira, MBA, Business Owner and Director, Mammoth Services, LLC (commercial/industrial roofing)
Blanchard opened the session with remarks about the purpose of bringing in alums to discuss entrepreneurship. “We’re here to increase our understanding of what we can do to ensure our students become leaders in their communities and in their professions,” he noted. “A degree of value gives students choices. From those choices comes the success we want for our graduates. Today is all about making it clear what a degree of value does—it sets you up for success in community and career.”
TenBrink led the Q&A format, starting with the question of motivation—what motivated these individuals to become business owners?
For DeWalt, it was recognizing at the age of 21 that he wanted to control his own destiny, build a legacy, and impact the Houston community at scale. Neither Hyman nor Lira started out as entrepreneurs, but both quickly recognized opportunity when it presented itself, and willingly took the reins of their careers to achieve their goals.
When asked what sort of mindset was required to be an entrepreneur, the guests exchanged glances and laughed a little ruefully. All agreed it took a certain amount of “crazy.” DeWalt noted that mindset was just one part of the equation: “First, you have to have the idea, to train yourself to look for the silver lining, and to see opportunity where most people don’t. Then you have to have determination and flexibility—the ability to assess, reassess, adjust. Most important, be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Lira agreed and added, “It’s going to be a rollercoaster—you never know what’s going to happen next. Not everyone is built for it, so you really have to know yourself. Self-awareness is required. And have the right team around you.”
Hyman’s recommendation? “Find your village. They may not look like your family or friends. Not everyone in your life will understand your path, but there are others going through what you’re going through. Being able to share your experiences and stories with a community of people who have experienced it is very helpful, whether to vent, collaborate, or create.”
TenBrink asked if their experiences had been affected by being minorities in their fields. “Well, I’m a roofer,” said Lira, making the audience laugh. “Being taken seriously as a woman in this industry is tough. I turned it around and made it my brand: I’m the woman roofer—and I’m the best around. I also got my MBA because I knew I had to do more to prove my ability. I’m changing the idea of what a roofer is—I’m not just a roofer; I’m a businesswoman.” Lira tries to bring more women up in her industry by working through universities and employment agencies to find employees.
Hyman, who started out in the banking industry, found that being authentic regardless of the circumstances was key. “The real estate industry is dominated by white males. When I step in the room, I’m the minority. But I learned while working in banking that you really have to dig into being yourself. I remember being in a bank meeting where everyone was wearing a black suit and blue tie. I was wearing a purple tie and dressed with more … individuality. What I found was that by daring to stand out, people actually felt more comfortable opening up to me, connecting with me.”
DeWalt noted a similar lack of diversity in the sports entertainment field. “Aside from the pro athletes, I was the only Black man in the room at business meetings with owners. There’s a dearth of minority and females in this industry, and I want to create a pipeline of both, to make necessary, meaningful, sustainable change.”
He found help via a mentor, Heath Butler, a partner in local venture capital fund Mercury. “Heath is a Black man in a white-male-dominated industry. He taught me everything he knows, and I now have a $25 million to $50 million fund specifically intended to fund sports startups. My goal is to help companies that show diverse thought, diverse voices, and diverse leadership.”
When asked to provide UHD students with one piece of advice, the panelists’ responses were honest. “Start early, before you have competing responsibilities,” said Hyman. “And if it’s already not early for you in your life, start as soon as possible. Gather your mentors, gather your team, and fail as quickly as possible—bump your head, then keep going.”
Lira agreed that life changes can slow you down, but she launched her business when she was pregnant. “Once life happens, it can derail you, but just don’t let anything stop you. Find that group of peers now who can support you and talk about things only business owners understand.” She recommended UHD start a group to provide that perspective to student business owners.
DeWalt confirmed the value of starting early and failing fast. “When I was 21, I sold my car and pawned my possessions to raise seed capital. I could do that at 21,” he said. “Now, I still take risks, but I’m much more calculated about which risks I take because I have a wife and two kids.” He added, “Building your own business is a marathon, not a sprint. All that instant success you see in social media is transient. You have to be patient and not only trust the process, but fall in love with the process.”
The final bit of advice from the panelists was to embrace the art of letting go.
“You’ve created this thing and nurtured it and fought for it from the beginning,” said DeWalt. “It’s hard to know when it’s time to relinquish some control.” He joked, “But I do know to let go of Excel. I’m great with people, but I have to have someone else do Excel.”
For Lira, letting go was difficult but absolutely essential for her business to thrive. “Not only can you not do it all yourself,” said Lira. “You need a team that keeps you on track. I like to dissect and analyze. I have to have people to tell me: enough. We don’t need to go that deep. Time to pull the trigger.”
Hyman is the reverse. His talent as a visionary and strategist needs the balance of tactical minds. “By nature, I go to the big picture and the future,” he said. “I need people around to ground me, bring me back from the clouds.”
He added one final word of advice. “The worst years are at the beginning, when resources are scarce; alliances are yet to be built; and you’re spending money you don’t have. But if you can weather that, the upside is so worth it.”
DeWalt and Lira couldn’t agree more.
The President’s Lecture Series will return in the Spring. For more information about UHD courses related to launching and running your own business, contact your Student Success Coordinator.
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.