Like many college students, Tyrone Powell struggled to find his path in life. Born and raised in France where his dad played professional basketball, Powell had followed in his dad’s footsteps and spent his teen years as a basketball standout.
He played on the France Youth National team before relocating to Milwaukee, his dad’s hometown.
“I had two choices,” Powell said. “I could stay in France and play for a youth professional team or play basketball in the states. I decided to move and enrolled at Wauwatosa West High, played basketball there, and then joined the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay as a walk-on.”
Powell loved basketball, but realized he would not make it to the next level. That had him evaluating his options.
“I started UWGB as a computer science major, but wasn’t sure if that was the major for me,” he said. “I liked the field, and thought I could see myself doing it, but didn’t really know what it would be like as a career. I talked to friends who had the same problem as I did. They knew they had some interest in their major, but weren’t sure what it entailed.”
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There were juniors and seniors, who even though close to graduation, had never actually experienced what it would be like to work in their chosen fields.
“I knew that was a problem,” Powell said.
He was still questioning his own choice, and wanted to learn more about it. That led to a search for internships, but there were very few offered. He asked about shadowing or volunteering in his field, and again, was challenged to find opportunities. After finally getting connected with a business and observing computer science employees at work, he realized it wasn’t a good fit.
Friends asked how he was able to find the opportunity to shadow — defined as a practice of going into a business and following an employee in that field to get a better idea of the work and job responsibilities that would be required.
“I told my friends that it had been hard to get connected. I looked at the platforms that were out there and thought there had to be some way for students to get connected before they realized they didn’t like their major,” Powell said.
He continued to consider how the problem could be solved. He had changed his major to business entrepreneurship and marketing, and was challenged to enter a business contest for one of his classes. The business he created, Unext, came to life.
“At first I thought it was just a good idea for a business competition, but once it was done, I saw how much traction it had,” he said. “Interest started rising and now I am here.”
Powell found his passion in entrepreneurship. Before graduating in May, he was president of the UWGB Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization and found his place among fellow entrepreneurs. What had started as a class project took shape as a business with great potential.
For the business competition, he had laid out a basic business plan and identified his target market, mission and value proposition. He had two major customer segments — employers and students. Unext offered numerous benefits for both.
For students, Powell said that statistics show that 75% of college students change their major at least once and 43% are underemployed for their first job out of school. Employers, especially in today’s environment, are looking for talent.
He said, “Unext aims to increase the number of connections between students and employers and help employers recruit and identify talent that will best fit their company. Students will learn about different company cultures to help decide which businesses will match their personality.”
By being part of Unext, students will be able to get connected with shadowing opportunities, internships, jobs, tours, and more. Employers are able to post opportunities to connect with students who may become future employees. As interest has grown, Powell has added a third customer segment — educational institutions that would like to give students an advantage.
“Why haven’t schools seen this as a priority?” Powell said. “This is a question I pondered for a long, long time. Even going to college as a freshman, I thought schools would focus on this earlier. I hope that Unext will be part of the change to help students connect with more mentors and short-term opportunities.”
As test launches have shown great promise and adopters are added to the platform, Powell works with a team of seven people (equity investors) to get to the next level. He said that it has required substantial capital to get to this point and the team is looking for additional investment to reach short- and long-term goals. As he works long hours and looks at building a trajectory for success, he has learned much.
“A business is not just having a great idea,” he said. “It is planning, research, development and conversations. You need to go slow, evaluate everything, and don’t get so excited to start that you fail to really understand your space. Surround yourself with experienced people and don’t hesitate to ask questions. You will find that the more questions you ask, the better you’ll do.”
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.