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Former students offer insight and advice at Boss Talk | Image: Kimberly Ikpo

Students gathered in Rudder Theatre Thursday night to get advice from former students who have risen to the top. In its third year, Aggie Boss Talk hosted five industry leaders from a variety of fields. 

Panelists included John Faulkinberry ‘92, vice president of sales in North America at Emerson; Stephanie Atkinson ‘97, CEO of Compass Intelligence; Jay Still ‘84, president and CEO of Guidon Energy; Bonnie Black ‘94, vice president of Permian Well Planning and Permitting, Pioneer Natural Resources; and Brad Simmons ‘83, global vice president of Built Environment.  

“These five Aggie bosses had incredibly timely and amazing advice to give our students, not just about how to rise to the top, but about how to be the best engineer right where you are,” said Rodney Boehm, director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program. “It’s always an exciting time when you can bring former students back to campus and give them the opportunity to engage with Aggies who will make up the workforce of tomorrow.”

 Chemical engineering graduate student Jyoti Sharma said that she really enjoyed the event. “It’s all up to you,” she said. “You are responsible for your career.” 

Mechanical engineering senior Onur Erdemir agreed. “I understand a new perspective of how people in industry approach certain situations that might arise,” he said. “I learned that communication and soft skills are very important.”

Here are some of the key takeaways from Boss Talk: 

1. You’re responsible for your own success.

“You’re a big fish in a small pond,” said Still. “I have a personal saying, ‘If you’re doing good things, good things are going to happen.’ Never stop learning.”

Atkinson agreed with this sentiment. “Don’t live your life by default. Be purposeful,” she said.

2. Develop your soft skills.  

Faulkinberry said that even if you’re an introvert, you can learn how to put yourself out there. 

“First of all, smile,” he said. “People will accept your approach a lot more if they think you’re pleasant.” 

Atkinson said it’s important for students to learn how to be social, and that authenticity is crucial. “You can’t be fake,” she said. “You’ve got to build your personal brand if you’re going to start your own company.” 

3. Choose the right friends. 

“You’re known by who you surround yourself with,” Simmons said. “I learned to be a little more selective. Just really think about the kind of person you are and the kind of person you want to be around.” 

4. Enjoy the Aggie Network. 

“You can be in the deepest part of Africa and you can pick out an Aggie ring from across the airport,” Still said. 

Simmons agreed. “I usually always have an A&M hat on and my ring,” he said. “It’s amazing how you can spot someone, and I will certainly look at your resumé harder if I see A&M on it.” 

That said, Simmons added that this doesn’t mean Aggies should expect to have it easier. “If you get in the door that way, you have some extra pressure on you,” he said. 

5. Start your day right.

“I’m up early,” Faulkinberry said, adding that he’s the first in the door and the last to leave.

Atkinson said she works from home. “I might be in my pajamas until noon, but I get stuff done,” she said. “I get on Twitter and I look and see what’s trending in tech news and I make sure I know what’s going on.” 

“I try to have a smile on my face when I greet my employees. There’s nothing worse than the boss walking down the hall with a grimace on his face.” 

6. Set the right workplace culture.

Black said one of the first things she did when she started working at her current company was get rid of the giant wooden desk in her office. 

“I moved in bean bags and comfortable couches,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what my title is or how much I’m getting paid, we’re equal.”

Simmons said that he purposely blocks some time off on his calendar for no meetings, and he opens his door or sits in a cubicle. “It’s scheduled interruptible time,” he said. “You want people to come in and have a chance to visit.”  

7. Be fearless.

Black said when she first started her own business with a colleague, it was when she had a young child and another on the way. They went without paychecks, but within five months, they were cash positive.

“I had no fear, and if I fell on my face, I knew I was employable and I knew how to work,” she said.

Still said when a window opens, it’s almost never convenient. “Those windows of opportunity open and close, and then they’re gone,” he said. “You have to have the courage to jump and the wisdom to know that this is something you’re jumping to and not away from. I see a lot of people that just don’t want to get out of their comfort zone.”