SAA stands for Student Alumni Association, and if “student alumni” sounds like an oxymoron, the thousands of students walking around in the shirt apparently don’t think so. Through events, giveaways, and opportunities for career development and volunteerism, they’re building closer bonds with their alma mater — bonds that will grow as they graduate and venture out into the real world. The overall GSU Alumni Association, which provides the funds for SAA, hopes that what begins as a wardrobe choice will develop into membership in the GSUAA and a lifelong connection from which both the students and their university can benefit.
And, as evidenced by the ubiquity of the GSU SAA shirts, plenty of students think that’s an attractive offer. Less than four years after it was founded, the Student Alumni Association has grown to more than 2,500 members — making it the largest student organization on campus.
Making School Spirit Pay Off Down the Road
When Lorenzo Rogers was attending high school at Brookstone in Columbus, Ga., one of his teachers was a Georgia State graduate. “She would tell me about how it was way smaller back in the day,” he remembers. “What she did was wake up in the mornings, drive to class, and go home. There were no residence halls, no dining halls, not a lot of reasons to stay on campus after classes were over.”
Today, Rogers is a senior majoring in psychology, as well as an SAA member — and Georgia State has residence halls, dining halls, and a thriving core of student life on campus. Rogers, who served as SAA’s director of student affairs in 2013-14, says the group fueled that sense of community and campus pride through regular events, free lunches and other giveaways, and the December release of Georgia State’s first-ever Official Panther Ring. There are also annual scholarships available exclusively to SAA members.
But the SAA aims to instill that school spirit for more than just four or five years, says Sigi Cayel, a senior in political science and the group’s vice president of administration. “We help bridge the gap between the students and the alumni through things such as leadership development,” she says, “so when they get out into the working world, they have connections, they can intern, they can get jobs and build their professional skills.”
One example of that effort is the Dinner with 12 Panthers program, in which a Georgia State alum in a given industry hosts a dinner for 12 students majoring in a similar field. “So instead of going out into the real world and being blind to what they need to do to get where they want to go, boom, we have this person who’s done it,” says Brittany Hood, SAA’s student relations coordinator. “And when students get comfortable talking to people in that kind of environment, we find that it continues once they’re out in the real world.”
SAA member Jay Lovern attended one of the dinners a couple years ago at the home of a Georgia State marketing alum. “They take you in, cook you dinner and treat you really nice, and you basically have an open forum to ask, ‘Hey, what did you do, what worked well for you, can you give me some direction?’” he says. “That is the kind of thing I wish I’d been more involved in as a freshman.”
Lovern has since earned his own marketing degree and is pursuing a second in computer information systems while he does a co-op at Delta Air Lines. As he transitions from college into the career world, he’s been particularly grateful for the leadership skills SAA has helped him develop — skills he’s been able to use both on the job and back on campus.
“When I sign people up [for SAA], I may not know them at all, but I can tell them, ‘As a freshman I just wish someone could’ve grabbed me by the shoulder and said, look, this helps you get a grasp on college in general,’” Lovern says. “It’s great being able to take a freshman, who may not realize that he has so much potential, and help him to realize he can really do anything he wants and there are people who can help.”
Return on Investment
Ultimately, of course, Georgia State hopes students like Lovern will stay connected once they’re settled into their career paths and continue to feel a sense of pride and ownership in their alma mater.
“That’s something that Christina Million [associate vice president for alumni affairs]felt very passionate about, that we wanted to start building a bridge between the students and the alumni from the minute they got here,” says Jasmine Stewart, who served as SAA’s advisor when it was formed in February 2011. “We’ve really connected the two entities so that when students graduate, they’re already comfortable with the alumni association. It’s not this thing they’ve never thought about in their four years and then all of a sudden it’s, ‘Oh, come join.”
Hood, who succeeded Stewart as advisor in 2013, says the SAA tries to make clear to students that staying connected to Georgia State “is not always a financial thing. We know how it is for new graduates — ‘I’m fresh out of college, I’ve just started my career, I don’t want people calling me up asking for money.’ But we have a speaker series, banquets, and volunteer opportunities that expose students to involvement outside those financial aspects that can get stuck in their heads. We want to make sure they know it’s about more than just giving money; it can include your time as well.”
In her own way, Hood is an SAA success story. She helped launch the group as a student, and then — right as she was preparing to start her career in information technology — she got the opportunity to stick around at her alma mater and serve as the group’s advisor. She jumped at the chance and hasn’t looked back.
“IT was just one of those things that was easy for me to do, but I didn’t really enjoy it — it didn’t give me joy and motivation like my work did here,” Hood explains. “When I got to graduation, Jasmine ended up being promoted [to assistant director of constituent relations in the GSUAA]and this position opened up, so it was like, ‘Wow, what a coincidence!’ It had been on my mind — who’s going to run this group? What’s going to happen to it? So I thought it was just meant to be.”
By her own admission, Hood first came to Georgia State with a “commuter-school” mentality — “I came to classes, and as soon as classes were done, I was going to work or going home,” she says. So she’s particularly proud of the way school spirit has risen in the years since, and of SAA’s role in that.
And as founding members of SAA, both Hood and Stewart are proud of the incredible things the group has accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. Going from 0 to 2,500 students in three years, of course, is a huge feat. So is the 3,000 toiletry items (and countless volunteer hours) SAA members have contributed to SafeHouse Outreach, a center providing meals, counseling, mentoring and other services for at-risk kids and families in Atlanta’s urban core.
But SAA’s biggest undertaking might have been hosting the District III conference for ASAP (Affiliated Student Advancement Program), the student arm of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, in February 2013. As the largest of CASE’s eight districts, District III’s conference was only slightly smaller than the national gathering — 540 students and advisors in attendance — and Georgia State’s SAA had existed for less than two full years. But the student members said they wanted to host the conference, and they got it done.
“I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I was ready to host that conference, because we were so new!” Stewart says with a laugh. “But the students pulled me aside and said, ‘Don’t hold us back, we really think we can do this and we think we can do a great job.’ And I thought, if the students are so passionate about it, who am I to stand in their way?”
The “all-hands-on-deck” effort proved to be successful — so successful, in fact, that CASE ASAP honored the Georgia State SAA with its Outstanding Organization Award at its national convention last August. “That’s the highest award you can get for an organization like this,” Cayel says. “We’ve gotten the association to the point where all the other organizations were asking how we grew so fast.”
“It gives a lot of validation to the program,” Stewart agrees. “We’ve done a lot of things in a very short amount of time. There are a lot of schools in our area with organizations that are more established, but this award says we can compete with UNC-Chapel Hill, we can compete with the University of Florida, the University of Alabama — we stand eye-to-eye with those groups.”
Pictured above (left-right): Jasmine Stewart, Lorenzo Rogers, Jay Lovern, Sigi Cayel, and Brittany Hood.
A single fast-food franchise, which Hashim opened in anticipation of the Summer Olympics in 1996, turned into several. That cluster grew into a network of dozens, spread across multiple states. Eventually that network became NRD Holdings, one of the largest franchise operators in the United States. And Hashim has even bigger plans on the horizon.
But he hasn’t forgotten about the Georgia State community whose business fueled his early success. To give back, he’s endowed a faculty position designed to educate Robinson College of Business students about franchising and foster an energetic, entrepreneurial spirit to drive their careers.
“Entrepreneurism is a way of thinking. It’s not just an activity,” Hashim explains. “In fact, when we hire at our company, one of the things we try to focus on is how entrepreneurial a person is. It involves a degree of critical analysis and a way of looking at things creatively, of challenging assumptions — that’s entrepreneurism to me. I think Georgia State will take one of the lead positions in that area, and I’m really excited.”
Success Starts on the Ground Floor
Hashim was born in Pakistan, raised in London, and moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 13 — the kind of globe-crossing youth many of today’s CEOs and power brokers certainly share. But Hashim’s formative experiences happened not at country clubs or luxury hotels but at the Burger King franchise owned by his uncle.
“One of my dad’s brothers had purchased a Burger King, and I started helping on the weekends as a part-time job when I was 14, mopping the floors and wiping down the tables, doing everything an entry-level employee would do,” he remembers. “That developed into an eight-year stint where, all through high school and all through college, I moved up through the ranks at Burger King.”
By the time Hashim earned his electrical engineering degree from UC-Irvine, he’d become a manager with a comprehensive knowledge of how a fast-food franchise worked and what it took to make one successful. So comprehensive, in fact, that only a few months into his engineering career, he knew he could find greater success elsewhere. “I realized that after all those years in fast food, I had a better shot at achieving my goals in franchising than engineering.”
Hashim soon moved to Atlanta, where his sister lived, and “just fell in love with the city.” Though Atlanta wasn’t quite the global hub it is today, Olympic fever was building, and there was a general sense that a breakthrough moment wasn’t far off. For Hashim, it was the perfect time and place to start a business of his own. Seeing every fast-food chain represented downtown except for KFC, he cold-called the company seeking a franchise opportunity — and though Atlanta was a corporate market for KFC as opposed to a franchise market, the company granted him a single-store license.
“61 Broad Street is where my first-ever business was, my franchise,” Hashim says. “The business school was right there, and Georgia State students were all around. So a lot of my customers were Georgia State students and staff, and many of my employees were Georgia State students as well. I had a really strong affinity for Georgia State right from the get-go.”
With the Georgia State community and downtown office workers providing a ready-made customer base, the KFC franchise succeeded quickly. The construction of the Helen M. Aderhold Learning Center at the corner of Broad and Luckie streets swelled that base even further. Soon Hashim was able to open a Subway across the street, at 68 Broad; then came a Taco Bell next door to the KFC, and a Pizza Hut next door to that. He even opened a Moe’s Southwest Grill on the side of the block facing Peachtree Street.
“At one time I had five establishments on Broad Street,” Hashim says. “That’s where I got my start, and from there we were able to become one of the largest restaurant operators in the U.S.”
‘You’re in Business For Yourself, but Not By Yourself’
Franchising remains “one of the most misunderstood enterprises in America, despite being a $2.1 trillion industry and a huge part of the U.S. GDP,” Hashim asserts. “Part of the reason for sponsoring this position at GSU is to educate students about that. They should not look at franchising as some kind of dead-end job where you’re just trying to save up for your first car — it is in fact a very, very big business.”
Even before he began discussing an endowment with RCB, Hashim was lecturing to business students at Georgia State and elsewhere about the benefits of franchising, and he says students are consistently surprised at what a “viable post-college career option” it can be. “You know, I was a franchisee almost right out of college. I only had my engineering job for about 90 days,” he says with a chuckle. “I was really just a student who was able to graduate and go right into business, and I think a lot of students underestimate their ability to do that. They think, ‘Oh, I don’t have any capital or experience,’ but they need to understand there actually are opportunities for college graduates and other qualified people to go into the business world directly.”
Because franchisees are backed by the marketing power and name recognition of established corporate brands, Hashim adds that the failure rate of franchise restaurants is “minuscule” compared to establishments starting from scratch.
“It is so difficult to get the menu architecture right, to get the supply chains right, to get site selection right, to get construction right. I admire those who build their own restaurants, but the failure rates are tremendously high,” he says. “One of the benefits of franchising is you’re dealing with national names — one thing I didn’t have to do when I opened my KFC was prove to people what the food was going to be like.
“You’re in business for yourself, but not by yourself. You have the name recognition and product development of a huge company behind you. The risks for franchise businesses are considerably less than independent businesses — you don’t have that fear of, ‘Oh my god, what if people don’t come into my restaurant?’”
As a member of Robinson’s Board of Advisors, Hashim says he’s observed a concerted emphasis on real-world skills and innovative ideas at the school — a big factor in his decision to invest so generously in it. “Part of Georgia State’s mission is to produce students who are employable upon graduation, and while that is, on the surface, supposed to be a goal of every institution, at the end of the day I don’t know whether every institution has that in mind. So I really like the pragmatism with which Georgia State approaches education: We’re going to train you in a skill, but we’re also going to make sure you’re employable. And the two are not necessarily the same.”
As he judges the résumés of new college graduates applying for jobs at NRD, Hashim says many of them “come from good institutions with good grades, but they don’t really have some of the skills you need to be employable right away. I think Georgia State has recognized that, they are addressing that, and they are giving their students additional skills beyond their core educational training. There’s also this big push toward entrepreneurism, and I think that’s going to set Georgia State apart. That’s my vision for this faculty position — let’s create entrepreneurs.”
Despite having risen to the top of his industry, Hashim’s own entrepreneurial spirit remains active indeed: He’s begun selling off many of his franchises and moving to the other side of the equation. “Last year I made the transition to becoming a holder of a private equity company that is going to be purchasing brands,” he explains. “So rather than just being a franchisee, we will actually become a franchisor, buying small regional chains and perhaps national chains as well. That’s a very important story, because it’s the first private equity fund owned by franchisees, and there’s lots of good reasons to do it.”
But he hasn’t abandoned the franchising industry — or downtown Atlanta — entirely. There’s just too much business there. “One of my restaurants, a Subway on Edgewood Avenue, is right next to where they built university housing,” he says with pride. “That’s one of my best performing locations.”
Just weeks into his junior year at Georgia State, Camilo was interviewing for internships in New York. By the time his summer internship ends, he’ll more than likely have a job offer from a major financial corporation. That pace of achievement would be impressive for any student, but even more so for one who didn’t come to the U.S. until he was 10 years old.
Benitez, though, is modest about that résumé — calling it “the least I could do.”
“My parents came here to offer our family better opportunities, and they worked so hard to bring us here,” he says. “My father has succeeded so much despite all the difficulties, like learning the language. The least I could do was try to do even better.”
An Opportunity Arises — at Just the Right Time
Benitez faced his own share of difficulties early on. After graduating from high school in Dallas, Ga., Benitez had a full scholarship to a private university in upstate New York where annual tuition was more than $60,000 — but only a month before his sophomore year was scheduled to start, they told him they couldn’t continue offering the full ride. Benitez found himself scrambling for a place where he could continue his studies.
“I called all the universities — Emory, UGA, Georgia Tech, Georgia State — and because all the deadlines had already passed, nobody could accept me. Georgia State was the only place that would allow me to come here as a transfer student,” he remembers.
While Georgia State might have started out as merely a temporary place for a soft landing, though, it soon became a place Benitez “fell in love with.” He enrolled as a full-time student in the Honors College and changed his major to accounting and finance, and from there the opportunities came quickly. Through ALPFA, the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, he joined a team that advanced to the national level of an accounting case competition sponsored by KPMG; the organization also helped him land the first of many internship opportunities.
“I loved working for Boeing,” Benitez says of the summer internship that followed his sophomore year. “The atmosphere out in Seattle was very different from the east coast. I think the corporate environment’s more relaxed.”
New York Comes Calling
The one tradeoff of the Boeing internship was that Benitez had to turn down an opportunity to join that year’s Panthers in London trip. But when the plane left for the Panthers on Wall Street trip in September, he was on it.
“My advisor for ALPFA, Allison Jacobs, suggested I join Panthers on Wall Street, and she even wrote my letter of recommendation,” he says. “When I came to know a little bit more about the program, I thought this would be a great way for me to network with people from different walks of life and see the opportunities available in New York.”
The itinerary for Panthers on Wall Street is always jam-packed — but for Benitez it was even more so.
“Right before I went, one of the Georgia State alumni who now works for JPMorgan, Christopher Rodriguez, reached out to the Panthers on Wall Street people saying he wanted to help out, and could they recommend anyone for an internship at JPMorgan,” he says. “I knew they’d given Chris my name, but while we were on the trip, he actually scheduled an interview for me. I thought, ‘This is awesome — this trip’s already paying off.’ The last day of the trip was Wednesday, and Friday of that same week, they offered me the position.”
Even Bigger Opportunities Await
By the following spring, Benitez had not one but three internship offers: the one from JPMorgan; an offer from Boeing to do a second summer in Seattle; and one at the Atlanta offices of KPMG. In the end, he went with KPMG based in part on his greater familiarity with the company; he’d interviewed with them once before and had attended one of their diversity leadership programs the summer he worked for Boeing.
However, he says he’s also looking forward to the wide range of opportunities at KPMG, whose main services cover financial advising, taxation, and auditing. “That’s why I’m doing the internship, to find out what I really want to do, accounting or audit,” he says. “As an accounting/finance major I can kind of choose what I like the most.”
Just because he’s chosen to stay in Atlanta for the summer, though, doesn’t mean he’s taken his eye off the Big Apple. In the likely event that KPMG offers him a full-time job after his internship, that position could very well be in New York. Between his father and the Panthers on Wall Street alums who’ve reached out to him, Benitez is confident that he has the role models to be successful whenever that opportunity arises.
“Sitting down and listening to the different recruiters and people who had been in the industry — and a lot of them are alumni from Georgia State — we realized, they used to be us. Just seeing them tells you, yes, it’s possible to work there. You can do it.
“I think I adapt easily to different circumstances. In my life I’ve had to come from Colombia to Florida and from Florida to here, and then from the suburbs to downtown Atlanta. I think that’s why the setting and the pace of New York doesn’t seem like a problem. It’s just something different that I’ll get used to — and that I’m looking forward to.”