Chris Bhatti, Carl Dorvil, Kevin Lavelle and Tammy Nguyen Lee share the bond of an SMU experience that encouraged them to see possibilities instead of barriers and provided them with the knowledge and skills they needed to make their marks on the world. The four entrepreneurial alumni talked about how their University education helped shape their futures during TEDxSMU Hilltop September 21.
They were among more than 20 presenters at the half-day conference hosted by
the Lyle School of Engineering and Meadows School of the Arts at the Bob Hope Theatre on campus. The SMU-only event brought together students, alumni, faculty and staff for thought-provoking conversations and performances.
Following, the alumni offer their perspectives on the theme of the afternoon: “re:THINK.”
‘Comfortable with the Uncomfortable’
While Chris Bhatti ’04, ’08 joked about often standing out in a crowd as an Indian American, his underlying message applied across the cultural spectrum: In learning to embrace his difference, he realized “the critical importance of being comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
Bhatti, who serves as the director of External Affairs and Alumni Relations for the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, is currently working toward a Master’s degree in the school’s Dispute Resolution program. He also is involved in several entrepreneurial ventures, including Group Excellence, an education company created by Carl Dorvil, a fellow TEDxSMU Hilltop speaker.
He praised his father with instilling a respect for education and the drive to achieve. The elder Bhatti emigrated from a small village in India to the United States with $8 in his pocket and an eighth-grade education.
“He always said ‘I want the best for you, so I want you to go to SMU,’” Bhatti said. He, as well as his two older brothers, graduated from the University. He earned Bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and psychology and an M.B.A.
Bhatti views the world as his classroom – he has visited 28 countries and taught school in four of them. By remaining open to new experiences, “the walls come down and people come together,” he said.
“I deliberately put myself in situations of discomfort to learn,” Bhatti added. “In learning I become a better student, a better teacher, a better professional.”
‘The Four P’s of Success’
Carl Dorvil ’05, ’08 credits his parents, Haitian immigrants who placed a high value on education, with steering him to SMU. As a student in Dedman College, he majored in public policy, economics and psychology. He earned a Professional M.B.A. through the Cox School of Business in 2008.
As an undergraduate, Dorvil launched Group Excellence, a tutoring and mentoring company, from his residence hall room in Cockrell-McIntosh. Today the company provides K-12 educational services in Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Houston and San Antonio. In 2011, Group Excellence was listed among Inc. magazine’s 500 fastest-growing private companies in the country.
Dorvil analyzed the winning strategies of such legends as sprinter Michael Johnson and Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith while building his business. He joked about his sports-centric viewpoint during a high-energy explanation of his alliterative formula for success: push, pace, position and pray.
“You have to push yourself from the beginning; if you don’t, you’ll spend the rest of your time making up for that mistake,” he said. “The friends you keep set your pace … friends will tell you the truth – and have your back.”
The ability to weather setbacks and keep moving forward places “you in a position to succeed,” he said. “And you have to pray; you have to have faith and believe in what you’re doing.”
‘No = Go’
Kevin Lavelle ’08 is the founder and CEO of Mizzen+Main, which offers a new spin on men’s dress shirts: They’re fashioned in moisture-wicking, wrinkle-free fabric.
Lavelle’s idea for high-performance work wear was sparked by his experience as an intern in Washington, D.C. On a particularly humid day, he watched a political staffer’s soggy dress shirt become a wrinkled mess minutes before an important meeting. Lavelle began pondering a possible solution, but at the time, he seemed like an unlikely candidate for the apparel business. The President’s Scholar was majoring in management science in the Lyle School of Engineering and was preparing for a very different future.
“I remember thinking: I’m a student; what do I know about that business? I have no knowledge about textiles,” he said. “So, I shelved the idea.”
After graduation he traveled the world as a technology consultant but kept circling back to the shirt. This year he “pulled the idea off the shelf” and launched the manufacturing and retail business with two goals: producing the garments in the United States and donating a portion of every sale to support charities and job programs for veterans.
“Veterans return with skills that do not easily translate to a traditional résumé,” Lavelle explained. His company’s “A Shirt For A Start” program aims to help them develop marketable skills through paid internships.
Lavelle’s advice to budding entrepreneurs was simple: “Never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
“I had let ‘no’ stop me in the past, but I hope it won’t be the case for you,” he said. “In college is the perfect time to start. Next time you hear ‘no,’ think ‘go.’ No is just a cue to reorganize and press on.”
‘Starting My Movement’
Tammy Nguyen Lee ’00 was just three months old when her family fled war-torn Vietnam. They eventually settled in the Dallas suburb of Garland. Inspired by her parents, “hardworking folks who always gave back to their community, even when they had little themselves,” Lee’s determi-nation to find a way to make a difference led her to Meadows School of the Arts to study filmmaking.
“Life changed for me at SMU,” she said. “I was idealistic and decided to change the world with films.”
Her documentary debut, “Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam,” has been screened at more than a dozen festivals and has won two audience choice awards. The movie takes a contemporary look at the controversial humanitarian effort that brought more than 2,500 Vietnamese children to the United States for adoption in 1975.
The film served as a catalyst for Against The Grain Productions. Lee founded and serves as president of the nonprofit that supports arts initiatives and outreach in the Asian-American community. The organ-ization also raises money for orphanages in Vietnam and Thailand.
“My passion project turned into my movement,” said Lee, who received SMU’s Distinguished Alumni Emerging Leader Award in 2010. “Dare to dream big … use your unique creativity to change the world.”