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* Perfecting the Recipe for Global Entrepreneurship

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Dongyu Xu '04 and Jeanine Thompson '04

Dongyu Xu '04 and Jeanine Thompson '04

When Dongyu Xu began brainstorming viable business concepts for an assignment in one of her entrepreneurship courses at Rensselaer last fall, the idea to sell bagels in China came to mind immediately. The Beijing native had developed a taste for the doughy treats during a stint working and traveling abroad, and she had noticed the demand for them rising in her home country.

“Despite what many think, a lot of Chinese are eager to try Western things, particularly Western food,” she explains. “Young people there consider it fashionable to try Western dishes.” A growing population of American expatriates in China, an expected jump in the influx of foreigners during the 2008 Summer Olympics, and a mostly untapped niche for bagels in China’s enormous market made the idea even more appetizing to Xu.

When she heard the idea, classmate Jeanine Thompson was hooked. The two joined forces for the project, and have since partnered to start a business. The duo will make a go of launching a bagel franchise in China full time armed with their Rensselaer master’s degrees they received in May.

Students in the Lally School of Management and Technology’s master of science in management and MBA programs, respectively, Xu and Thompson met on campus, and say that it’s unlikely they would have connected outside of class. “There’s a lot of support here — especially in the Lally School — for working with students from other cultures,” says Thompson. “There’s a real focus on looking at things from a global viewpoint.” She and Xu both say they are grateful for that emphasis: “Dongyu brings an incredible amount of knowledge of the market that I don’t have to the table, and I think I contribute a kind of creativity and experience that she doesn’t possess,” says Thompson.

Andrew Corbett, assistant professor of management and Xu and Thompson’s instructor in their Principles of Technological Entrepreneurship course, agrees. “Jeanine and Dongyu’s partnership is a classic example of what is going on in the Lally School right now,” he says. “Here are two very different people with very complementary skills coming together to develop a unique idea with global implications. It’s a great match.”

At the urging of Corbett, the two entered their idea in Rensselaer’s New Venture Opportunity Contest last fall. They tied with five other teams for first place, and took home a check for $1,000 for their business plan. Buoyed by the win, they continued to develop the concept, and honed it through firsthand research and interviews with workers at baked goods stores. They even participated in the Rensselaer Incubator’s Venture B-Plan presentations — a monthly forum for entrepreneurs based in and around the Capital Region — and received positive feedback from the audience of area businessmen and Rensselaer faculty.

Xu and Thompson are optimistic that their idea will succeed, but say the experience of launching a business is valuable even if it doesn’t take flight. “I’ve learned a lot about working with a multinational company, and with people from other countries,” Xu says. “And I’ve definitely become more open and aware of many more cultures as a result of being here.”

Leveling the Playing Field for Students With Disabilities

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Dan Hebert ’04

Dan Hebert ’04

Dan Hebert clearly remembers his first laptop computer. At Rensselaer — where students go through laptops almost as quickly as pairs of shoes — that’s saying something.

When he was in the fourth grade at the Broken Ground School in Concord, N.H., the school district received a federal grant to provide technological assistance to students with disabilities. Hebert, who was born with a type of muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, obtained a laptop through the program right away. Since he had started working with PCs with his father when he was 4 and was doing basic programming at 10, Hebert already was well acquainted with computers. But the freedom to work on a laptop during his classes opened some doors to him that had previously been closed.

“It gave me a sense of autonomy at school that I didn’t have beforehand,” he says. “It essentially leveled the playing field.” From that point on, computers and technology would play a large role in Hebert’s life, as well as in his education at Rensselaer.

Twelve years and three laptops later — he received his current one in 2000 through the Institute’s laptop program — the 22-year-old graduated with a degree in computer science, and he will begin working toward his doctorate in the field at Rensselaer this fall. His ultimate goal in the Ph.D. program is to develop affordable computer interfaces and software for students with physical disabilities.

The road to graduation hasn’t always been smooth, however. As one of a handful of students using a wheelchair at the Institute, Hebert has encountered and overcome his share of obstacles. Rensselaer has added many features to campus since his first year to make it more accessible to the disabled, but Herbert says navigating Troy and the surrounding area is sometimes a challenge.

Still, Hebert remained determined to make things work, and to become more autonomous than he’s ever been in his life. “Since the day he started here in 2000, I’ve been impressed with how independent he is,” says Debra Hamilton, assistant dean for disability services in the Dean of Students Office. “He has barely relied on me for anything, and he has hired and supervised all of his student helpers himself. It’s a lot like he’s been running a small business.”

In addition to managing his staff of about 10 and attending classes, Hebert got involved in several activities. He participated in the Institute’s Chess Club as well as the Rensselaer Independent Free Thinkers Group, and he continues to run his own network and file server as a hobby. During this year’s spring break, he traveled to Texas to take his driver’s license test on a specially designed van. He passed, and this summer he’ll be driving his first vehicle, a customized van, with money he earned from interning at Praxair TAFA Inc., a high-tech industrial coating manufacturer, in Concord over the summers and school breaks.

Hebert even volunteered to give his input on renovations to Warren Hall. “If I can make Rensselaer a little bit more accessible and safer for someone like me,” he says, “I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.” He also wanted to give back to a place that has provided him with so many opportunities. “My success story is really a group success story,” says Hebert. “I wouldn’t be graduating this year if it weren’t for the help and support of my friends and the Rensselaer staff.”

Working To Make the World a More Accepting Place

Nassiba Benghanem’s vision for her role at Rensselaer took shape Sept. 11, 2001. Benghanem cringed in horror when she learned that the perpetrators of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon had practiced what they called Islam. “Being an American Muslim allowed me to see the tragedy from a unique perspective,” she explains. “From then on, I felt it was my duty to educate others so that hate will never find a place to prosper.”

Nassiba Benghanem ’04

Nassiba Benghanem ’04

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Benghanem joined a group of Rensselaer students, faculty, and staff to found the 9/11 Open Response Committee, an organization aimed at fostering discussions on a wide range of topics relevant to the Institute community. The group coordinated a series of events dealing with the Sept. 11 tragedies, global citizenship, the Afghanistan conflict, and related topics. She also joined Rensselaer’s Community Advocates group, which sponsors cultural events and diversity programming; and she continued her involvement with the Women at Rensselaer Mentor Program; the America Reads, America Counts tutoring organization; Phalanx; the Muslim Women’s Association; and assorted other community service projects. She even found time to do research on protein folding with Wilfredo Colon, assistant professor of chemistry at the Institute.

“I can’t think of anyone with more integrity than Nassiba,” says Cynthia Smith, assistant dean of students. “She is true to her self, true to her faith, and true to her community. She clearly believes in the importance of being an active global citizen.”

Benghanem’s long journey to Rensselaer started in 1996, when her family was forced to flee its home country of Algeria. At the time, Benghanem’s father, Mohammed, was serving as a dean and professor of a prestigious university. The onset of Algeria’s civil war and the increasing violence accompanying it, however, forced the family to leave the country with almost only the clothes on their backs. They eventually moved to Saudi Arabia, where Benghanem’s father took another position in academia.

In 1998, Mohammed Benghanem was offered a consulting position with an engineering company in Troy, and that job eventually led to a position as an applications consultant at Rensselaer. The family moved to the United States and settled in Troy. On top of having to deal with the obvious cultural differences, the children all spoke Arabic at home, which made the transition to English-speaking Troy High School a challenge. But they took it all in stride. “It only took us a couple of months to adjust,” says Benghanem.

At Troy High and in courses at the Institute that she qualified to take as a high schooler, Benghanem discovered a passion for the sciences. “Science always makes sense, no matter what language you’re speaking,” the biology major explains. She also developed a yearning to follow in the footsteps of older sister Soumeya ’03 and attend Rensselaer. (Benghanem’s younger sisters Khaoula ’05 and Ghofrane ’06 attend Rensselaer and her brother Abderrahmane will begin studying at the Institute this fall.) A student at Rensselaer since 2000, Benghanem finished her first bachelor’s in biology last year, and received a second one in May in interdisciplinary science. She will attend medical school this fall.

“I think after being here, I really want to steal Rensselaer’s ‘Why Not Change the World’ logo,” Benghanem says of her future. “It really does represent my view of life. I have so many things I want to do!”


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Rensselaer Magazine: Summer 2004
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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

 
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