CENTER VALLEY, Pa. – The evening was supposed to be focused on entrepreneurship and the future of education – but the energy and charisma of Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi definitely doubled as a takeaway from the Penn State Lehigh Valley LaunchBox Ladies’ Ambassador Circle event on November 16th . It was the second time the incoming President had visited the Lehigh Valley campus, but the first opportunity for most of the audience to hear her speak.
“She was so inspiring,” said Student Government Association President Kriday Sharma. “She clearly cares most about student success and will work tirelessly to innovate and empower us beyond our major.”
The President met with students first and delighted the group with the lessons she had learned on her own personal journey – from growing up in India without running water to becoming Penn State’s first woman president.
“I was making notes for a student assignment, but was so mesmerized by her presentation that I even forgot to write at times,” said Surya Sayee Subramanian, an international student who will graduate in December.
“She made everyone feel that with hard work they can achieve even such extraordinary goals,” said Sharma.
Bendapudi also articulated her focus for the university – beginning with her “ABCs for college success,” which include: Academic Achievement, Affiliation, and Containing Costs.
As the state’s only land grant university, Bendapudi made a point of explaining the concept to students and stemmed from Abraham Lincoln’s intention to provide access to education. She also shared how the university is fulfilling its land grant mission in the context of the 21st century.
“I’ve worked for a number of universities,” Bendapudi said, “but Penn State is really special. Other universities have some satellites – but 95% of all Pennsylvania residents live within 30 miles of one of our campuses. And there’s a four-year degree on every single Penn State campus — every single one. That means we have the ability to influence so many – because education is everything.”
Bendapudi also urged students to always check the facts. “Everyone wants to tell you things, but we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t tell you to check what people are saying — even my statements.”
Bendapdui shared details about the disparity in Penn State’s government funding and urged both students and the broader audience to voice their support for aligning government investment in Penn State with that of other public universities via.psu.edu demonstrate. “For every dollar Penn State funds, Pitt, PASSHE and Temple get more — some a lot more,” she said. “We should have equal funding – we can reach so many and do so much more.”
After meeting the students, the evening’s activities moved to the Nittany Lion Cafe in the new $16 million campus expansion recently completed under the direction of Chancellor Tina Q. Richardson. An invited audience heard much more about education and innovation from Bendapudi, Richardson and Sharma, as well as LaunchBox Ladies Chair Catherine Bailey and newly appointed LaunchBox Lehigh Valley Director Jill Crane, before moving on to a “fireside chat” between the President and the chancellor came .
“Reports show that up to 70% of GenZers want to become entrepreneurs,” Richardson said. “They (GenZ) have more than $143 billion in purchasing power and the motivation to be the boss. Penn State has the nationwide network of startup resources to give them the tools.”
Bendapudi spoke about the region’s massive transformation from a predominantly manufacturing industry to one of the most diverse economic portfolios in the state. “The entire region has only revitalized itself through entrepreneurship,” said Bendapudi. “Entrepreneurs don’t just react. They act proactively and take calculated risks. In higher education, we try to bring that out.”
Richardson again focused on the perspective of current (Gen Z) students: “They don’t want to just jump into the existing job opportunities that are out there. They are motivated people who want to solve problems. They want to keep things going.”
Crane continued with that thought, “At Launchbox, we specifically look for business ideas from our students and a larger community of would-be entrepreneurs that thrive at all levels, whether they’re inventing a new product or developing a scalable product line to be commercialized can in the mass market. Crane knows the process well as a longtime product development professional with awards including Crayola’s Activity Toy Maker of the Year in her own personal portfolio.
“Our LaunchBox network across the Commonwealth has supported more than 5,000 entrepreneurs, helping them start more than 200 new businesses and create 300 new jobs,” said Crane. “Through these initiatives, more than 500 student internships were also arranged.”
The evening ended with a member of the audience praising the President for such an impactful and candid presentation, and many side conversations reflected that mood on the way out.
“DR. Bendapudi is a tremendous asset to the university — but also to the Penn State community as a whole,” said Shane McGee, Chair of Penn State’s Lehigh Valley Advisory Board. “The energy she brings to the alumni base and to the Commonwealth “Campusse has is amazing. I’ve had the opportunity to see her speak several times and it’s always compelling – but more than that, she brings an incredible level of excitement – you want to get involved.”