Written by:Randena Hulstrand
May 5, 2009
Through the decades, UNT alumni have relied on creative, critical thinking to overcome economic lows and succeed.
At 12 years old, Walt Parker didn’t understand the repercussions of a crashing stock market until his father lost his Fort Worth railroad job in 1929. Over the next seven years, odd jobs only afforded a candle-lit home and regular meals of beans and potatoes. But Parker (’40) says the grappling years instilled in him a strong work ethic and taught him the value of opportunity.
“I’ve always thought if I worked hard enough, I could accomplish any goal,” says Parker, whose father encouraged him to enroll at North Texas in 1936 as the U.S. economy was climbing out of the Great Depression. “Everybody wanted teaching degrees because it was a sure job after graduation.”
North Texas was almost exclusively a teaching school at the end of the Depression. But in 1935, the university planted the seeds for growing into a major research institution by hiring its first research faculty member. J.K.G. Silvey, passionate about water research, contracted with the city of Dallas for scientific advice about the purification of the water supply and added four graduate students to his staff. This investment in research mirrored the efforts of other universities after World War II as a way to support the nation’s growing industrial economy.
Universities have long been partners with industry, providing fertile ground for nurturing ideas. They also are a place of regeneration for the work force. During recessions, which have occurred every decade since World War II, rising unemployment rates have driven university enrollment increases. When the job market contracts, universities are a resource for developing new thinking and skill sets that can transform careers and dreams.
As an industry, higher education is more kinetic during waning economies, and UNT is no exception. The fourth largest university in Texas, UNT is committed to generating fresh ideas, developing entrepreneurs and shaping scientists, artists and talented individuals in about 250 different disciplines.
Factories of the future
Paul Hendershot (’03, ’06 M.S.), an economist and director of research at the Dallas Regional Chamber, saysuniversities historically help stabilize the economy as people return to school and reinvent themselves.
“Universities are the factories of the future,” says Hendershot, who arrived at UNT in 2000 after the telecom industry plummeted, ending his contract with Fujitsu. He says his work as a UNT student and as a research assistant at the Center for Economic Development and Research allowed him to change careers and prepared him well for his role studying the Dallas economy.
Parker also seized new educational opportunities after returning from World War II. On the G.I. Bill, he took night classes to complete a master’s degree, working by day as a high school coach and business teacher.
“They were paying me to get more skills,” he says.
And skills open new doors. Ray Allahverdi (’78), an Iranian exchange student, launched his American dream by enrolling at UNT during the slow economy of 1974.
“Living in College Inn provided a quick transition into American life,” he says. “I felt I needed my M.B.A. to compete on an equal level because I was a foreigner.”
After 17 years of working for ARCO Oil and Gas as a senior business analyst, Allahverdi chose early retirement in 1995 to open his own dry cleaning business.
Cameron Allahverdi (’06), his son, remembers his dad’s first cleaning location in Valley Ranch, a burgeoning bedroom community.
“He invested everything we had into that store,” says Cameron, who followed in his father’s footsteps as an enterpriser.
Allahverdi grew the business to four more locations.
“I tell my son to look at the big picture and that patience, determination, hard work and passion for your product or service is key to success. The core entrepreneurial values were instilled in me,” says Allahverdi, crediting UNT. “There is some unexplainable feeling of freedom when you are in total control of your destiny.”
While downward-spiraling economies weaken industries and force job losses, these shocks can help opportunistic small businesses bubble up.
“Workers often decide not to go back into the same uncertainty again,” Hendershot says. “Or they have a new idea and want to strike out on their own.”
Even though interest rates were spiking in 1981, Terry Brewer (’65, ’70 Ph.D.) gathered his knowledge and collection of patents from working as a chemist for Texas Instruments and Honeywell, sold his home and moved into an RV to start his own company. One of the first U.S. scientists to conduct photochemical decomposition of metallics, he wanted to “continue to push the boundaries of science.”
Working as a research fellow at UNT, Brewer delved into hands-on studies to understand how organic metallics react, fostering his innate curiosity of how the world works.
“It gave me a sense of unstoppable boundaries and barriers,” he says.
Brewer Science Inc., now an international company spanning Europe and Asia, is a technology leader in specialty chemicals and equipment for micro- and optoelectronics. About one-third of the 300 employees are patent-making inventors, having filed almost 150 active patents collectively.
Brewer says the early ’80s proved to be a good time to strike out on his own. Today, Brewer Science Inc. is one of the largest companies of its kind in the Midwest and a three-time winner of the Tibbetts Award, which recognizes a company’s ability to launch research into actual products.
“When the economy is bad, businesses focus on new technology that can cause dramatic shifts for the industry,” Brewer says. “Our whole business premise is to create and invent products that didn’t exist before, driving technology that returns value back to society.”
Thinking outside the box and looking to the future are common threads among entrepreneurs. They often are the first to recognize a need and tap into a market.
Diane Cheatham (’73) is an innovative Dallas developer whose modern vision allowed her to create the first sustainable residential community in Dallas, Urban Reserve.
“As I looked around at the trash trailers on job sites, I thought, ‘How can we do something about that?’” says Cheatham, who quit her job as a real estate developer in 1991 to develop Urban Reserve on a former construction dumping ground. “For the reasons other developers wouldn’t like the land, I loved it.”
The sustainable neighborhood, complete with a rainwater irrigation system, comprises odd-shaped lots and modernist homes built from non-toxic, high-quality materials. Cheatham’s success is the perfect balance of creative vision and practical business models. And even as a sputtering housing market keeps Urban Reserve from full completion, Cheatham is mindful of the future as she looks to advance the building industry’s sustainable efforts.
“This is an opportunity to catch up and research the next step,” she says. “UNT gave me an understanding not just of accounting and finance, but of how to apply it.”
Contributing intellectual capital to expand the U.S. knowledge base is key to growing the economy. To strengthen its role in developing innovative thinkers, UNT recently committed to investing $25 million in collaborative research clusters that will pool knowledge across disciplines to help address society’s most pressing needs.
This isn’t the first time UNT has set its sights on meeting the demands of the future. In 1979, Parker joined UNT as assistant to the president after serving five terms as Denton County’s state representative. During this time, UNT invested in expanding its ranks of talented faculty to better attract the best students and to improve its work in support of business and industry.
“Texas wanted to grow, and we were fighting to bring industry and different skills here,” he says.
Doing its part to make Texas competitive, UNT launched the nation’s first accelerated residential program that allows gifted teens to take their first two years of college courses while completing high school. The alumni of the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, which accepted its first class in 1988, are leading researchers in businesses and universities around the world, and UNT continues to nurture young talent.
As the Texas university with the most Goldwater Scholars and one of five in the nation to earn the maximum number of awards in 2009, the university is spawning scientific leaders whose research already is contributing to society.
Wen Chyan, a student in this spring’s TAMS graduating class, earned the nation’s top science scholarship for engineering a polymer coating that could help prevent common and sometimes deadly bacterial infections resulting from prolonged use of invasive medical devices in hospitals. And 2003 TAMS graduate Adam Smith, founder of Xobni, is commercializing his e-mail search tool with venture capital — the most recent round totaled more than $10 million from Cisco, BlackBerry Partners Fund and other investors. Smith started his company as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In addition to grooming scientists and entrepreneurs, UNT is priming the next generation of industry leaders. Ashli White, a merchandising major who will graduate in August, participated in the 2008 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Voices Leadership Summit in Lima, Peru. Together with student ambassadors from 20 economies, she exchanged ideas with business and political leaders from around the globe.
“I now understand how countries have to interact together, logistically and technologically, if they are going to succeed in this world economy,” White says. “We need to help each other to help ourselves.”
UNT’s continued efforts to breed strong university-industry connections are encouraging partnerships that will allow university discoveries to propel industry forward. UNT plans to capitalize on the Dallas-Fort Worth infrastructure and its own deep intellectual resources in the development of the nearly 290-acre Discovery Park. Already, the research park is home to an array of laboratories and centers that include the federally funded Center for Advanced Research and Technology and the Institute for Science and Engineering Simulation.
In addition to Discovery Park’s recent partnership with Tech Fort Worth, a nonprofit business incubator helping commercialize innovative technologies, UNT is submitting entries to World’s Best Tech. There, venture capitalists from around the country can examine such work as faculty chemist Mohammad Omary’s patented research on organic light-emitting diodes.
Other universities have been propelled forward by a combination of faculty innovation, industry collaboration and location. In the 60-plus years since World War II, several high-technology centers have emerged in the United States. Stanford and MIT played an important role in the development of Silicon Valley and Route 128 as they spurred university spin-off companies, many run by former graduate students.
“The economic success of research universities depends on the quality of students and research, geographic location and corporate relationships,” says Harold Strong, director of Discovery Park and technology transfer.
But one of the most important measures of a university is the success and contributions of its alumni.
Keeping the passion
Miguel Reyna (’73) worked for 10 years as a forensic accountant for international corporations in England, Germany, Spain and Mexico, uncovering rings of corrupt employees, unions and cartels. In 1982, he returned home to help his dad, an owner of an auto garage, and other business owners in East Dallas work with developers to negotiate zoning.
Starting his own firm, Reyna continued working on international forensic accounting cases, but he expanded his clientele to help small businesses through financial crises such as foreclosures.
“In one of the largest recessions, I learned the value of flexibility and how to shift gears to help people,” Reyna says.
Today his firm is the oldest and largest Hispanic CPA firm in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, offering business and systems risk analysis, merger and acquisitions, and due diligence services for its 500 clients — many family-owned businesses.
Reyna now sees some of the same trends he witnessed in the ’80s, and he is helping his clients find ways to start again.
“Out of the ashes come good things,” he says. “I see new entrepreneurs striking out after they’ve been laid off from their corporate jobs, which is symbolic of our local independent, pioneering spirits.”
Looking to the future
Ray Allahverdi’s son, Cameron, credits life lessons, work ethic and UNT’s Murphy Center for Entrepreneurship for the early successes he and business partner Nicholas McCoy (’06) have experienced.
“We learned to create complimentary businesses, diversify our income and, most importantly, network,” says the younger Allahverdi, who opened his first business in 2007 next door to his dad’s Lewisville dry cleaning location. “And we also learned how to start a company without having a million dollars.”
Their skills are moving them forward in an unpredictable market.
As a junior, McCoy started Franklin Business Services, a full-service commercial printing company, after he discovered he could do a better job than the copy center where he worked. When Allahverdi’s pizza delivery business was forced to close as food and gas prices skyrocketed, he drew on lessons he learned from his dad.
“If it doesn’t work, you’ve got to keep trying.”
Friends since the sixth grade, Allahverdi and McCoy formed a partnership. Focusing on their individual expertise and the power of niche businesses within their printing business, they created two sub companies: Pizza Prints Inc. targets printing for small pizza restaurants, while North Texas Shirt Co. specializes in T-shirt printing for college organizations.
“In this economy, we have to think in pennies. It’s all about lowering costs while offering the highest quality available,” says McCoy of the business model that has doubled their sales in one year.
As the creative economy builds, moving farther from industrial-based and closer to information-based, the growing power of ideas is more valuable, making education essential to future prosperity. UNT is a valuable resource, meeting the intellectual and work force needs of the 21st century while nurturing talent and dreams for the future.
“UNT helped me see that the future is about people,” Brewer says. “It’s about the Einsteins and the entrepreneurs who move past boundaries into an expanded world to make it greater than before.”