Entrepreneurs of a Different Kind: Robert Morris University Entrepreneurs of a Different Kind | Robert Morris University

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WRITTEN BY MARK HOUSER

It was ten years ago this fall that computer and information systems professor Fred Kohun, Ph.D., spent an anguished weekend, wondering what to tell the 14 people who had signed up for Robert Morris University’s first doctoral program.

His bosses wanted the new D.Sc. in information systems and communications to be an applied, professional degree, akin to a J.D. or M.D., not theoretical like a Ph.D. The program had to appeal to aspiring executives, not just with convenient scheduling but in its subject matter and coursework. Instead of a dissertation, students would take a problem from the business world and research it with a field project.

“I was panic stricken,” recalls Kohun, associate dean of graduate programs and associate provost for research, accreditation, and program support. “I’d struggled all summer trying to figure it out. I was ready to give them their money back and say, ‘Come back next year.’”

Instead, he stayed up until 2 a.m. before that first Monday of classes, reworking the curriculum, trying to graft a research methodology and structure onto students’ existing expertise in communication and information systems. He succeeded, and the formula he devised is still largely the one being followed today.

Kohun was bred to tackle such a tough challenge. His father, who had fled the Soviet Union as a teenager, made his son read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in Russian. Kohun studied psychology, then history, then economics, before homing in on the emerging field of information systems – a marriage of computer programming and systems analysis geared towards solving concrete business problems.

“I now realize that we were entrepreneurs of a different kind,” says Jeryl Schreiner D’02, a member of Kohun’s first RMU doctoral cohort. She is a cofounder of Pittsburgh’s Idea Foundry, a nonprofit incubator for young high-tech companies, and also president of her own entrepreneurial consulting firm, WillowRock Inc.

The three-year D.Sc. program, in which the entire cohort meets for intense classroom sessions for one full week and then three subsequent weekends each semester, has graduated more than 100 professionals in its first decade. Here is a sampling:

A longtime senior-level administrator in various federal posts, Marie Savoy D‘09 found out about the program from a coworker, who had heard Kohun extolling it during a visit to the capital.

Two weeks before she earned the degree this spring, Savoy was named associate director for management for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. She is now in charge of all administrative operations for the agency that governs the country’s central bank, and she says RMU paved the way for her promotion.

“This is a highly skilled, highly educated group. I come to them as a peer, able to talk to them about complex issues,” Savoy says. “They were very happy here that I was getting my doctorate, and they told me so.”

Savoy’s big family, which includes five children and 21 grandchildren, gave her a memorable celebration. “I got home from commencement and they had ‘Welcome home, Dr. Grandma’ on a sign in the yard,” she says.

Jerry Macioce D’03 got to come home thanks in part to his doctorate. For years the Shaler native was a network infrastructure and IT consultant in Washington, D.C., and he commuted from the capital to RMU.

He had at least one astounding story to share with his cohort: Macioce was walking down a Pentagon corridor on 9/11 when the hijacked plane hit, and he quickly had to evacuate his staff to safety.

Westinghouse Electric hired Macioce in December as director of systems enterprise integration, and this spring the Pittsburgh nuclear energy powerhouse promoted him to chief information officer, putting him in charge of the computer systems used by the Westinghouse’s 13,000 global employees.

The doctorate played a big part in helping him land the toplevel corporate post, Macioce says. “It just makes you unique. To be an executive, you have to be successful and unique,” he says. “You have to stand out among your peers, because everybody can write a business case.”

When U.S. Steel needed to buy zinc for its galvanized steel lines, Michelle Hough D’02 was the person who made the calls. As a member of the first cohort, she arranged for her classmates to tour the London Metals Exchange. Hough had plans of one day heading the corporation’s IT operations, until something Kohun said inspired her to radically switch gears.

“I remember Fred saying in class one day, ‘If you want to do something, find a way to do it.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ The RMU program opened up a lot of windows for me to change my life from the path I was on. It really had the effect of shaking me up and making me see things differently.”

So Hough went into teaching. Now she is a Penn State professor specializing in business strategy. This spring Hough traveled to Malta to teach for a semester on a Fulbright Scholarship – her second, after having received one to teach in Denmark.

When he began to doubt government agencies’ ability to steer youths from broken homes along a straight path, therapist Christopher SpannD’08 formed his own group. Lifeboat Ministries, based in Homewood, connects volunteer mentors with young people who are referred by parents or school counselors.

“I believe in the kinetic energy of human beings trying to help each other,” Spann says. “If I help out 20 kids, that’s 20 less that the criminal justice system has to arrest. If they learn skills to help out others, those 20 may help out an additional 20.”

Most of his prior experience is in drug counseling. But Spann’s doctoral field project went in a different direction, examining how visiting online chat rooms can be detrimental to those trying to overcome sexual addiction.

“At graduation, when they announced the title of my project, people kind of went ‘Ewww,’” Spann says. But the project taught him valuable lessons, which he hopes to share by publishing a version of it later this year for other counselors to use.

   

As communications coordinator for the Allegheny County District Attorney, Karen Paullet ’02, M’05, D’09 helps prosecutors assemble cases into digital presentations they can show to a jury. That can include video footage from surveillance cameras, crime scene photographs, 3-D maps and diagrams, even primers on how experts analyze fingerprints or blood spatter patterns.

It’s not something Paullet, whose background was in finance, ever expected to be doing. Now she speaks about forensics at high schools throughout the region, and also teaches computer classes as an adjunct professor at RMU.

Paullet says when she was in high school she always dreamed of getting a doctorate. This spring her dream came true. “It’s the first time that I actually feel like, oh my gosh, I’ve actually done something important,” she says.

Eric Ondos D’07 was chief of staff for Pittsburgh City Councilman Jim Motznick for 10 years. For his D.Sc. field project, he researched floods, and how emergency managers keep a network of communications going as the high water is flowing.

 

That focus on wet work translates well into Ondos’s new job as a senior specialist for Pennsylvania American Water. The utility serves 2 million people across the commonwealth. He’s a bit of a detective, whose responsibility is to track down “non-revenue water” which is the utility’s name for water that it pumped out, but no customer received.

Ondos plugs leaks, in other words. 

“A lot of the job I do now is working on databases,” Ondos explains. “I’m working on some initiatives here, putting pretty much all the data we have into one universal source that can be used by the whole.”

Darlene Drazenovich D’07 Is a radio expert. Not about which “lite FM” station has more hits from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, but an expert on the radio spectrum. Drazenovich heads the international spectrum plans and policy division of the National Telecommunication and Information Administration in Washington, D.C.

Her work involves negotiating with other nations on how to share the spectrum of radio waves. That’s not jut for the stereo in your car, but for cell phones and other wireless devices, radar systems, maritime and aviation communications, satellites, and even radio telescopes and space research. As you might imagine, the airwaves could become a noisy mess without cooperation between countries.

“My doctorate has given me a higher degree of credibility in my field.  Ninety percent of the people in my field are electrical engineers, but I am not,” Drazenovich says. “Education is very important in my area of expertise, and a doctorate is a valued commodity.”