Six people, all wearing masks, standing in a road. The surrounding walls have graffiti on them.

New UMBC grads find entrepreneurial ways to positively impact communities

Kiaron Bailey will soon become the very first graduate of UMBC’s new master’s degree program in community leadership, a path she hadn’t envisioned for herself while working in finance just a few years ago. “From a very young age, my parents instilled in me the importance of giving back. I just didn’t realize that I could pursue that passion and actually sustain myself,” Bailey says. In deciding to make the career shift, “I kind of had a heart-to-heart with myself,” and she realized that entrepreneurship and community impact can go hand in hand.

Bailey learned about the program when she connected with Sonya Crosby at her place of worship. Today, Crosby is assistant vice provost for applied and off-campus programs, but at the time she was director of the Office of Professional Programs, which offered the new master’s degree. Crosby told Bailey about the practical emphasis of the program—how it combined coursework community-based service-learning—and Bailey knew it was what she was looking for.

Bailey, second from left in second row, and her classmates in a virtual class. Photo courtesy of Bailey.

Appreciating the nuances

As someone who studied finance as an undergraduate—where one plus one equals two—Bailey found the nuanced world of community leadership a bit shocking, she says, laughing. She particularly enjoyed connecting with nonprofits in Baltimore City, using her skills to support their missions while learning more about running community-based organizations. 

Next One Up helps Black male youth in their academics, including preparing for the SATs and other college prep. The nonprofit did not yet have a physical space, and Bailey researched possible locations, preparing them to strengthen their services and community connections post-pandemic.

Bailey, second from right, with her classmates in Baltimore. Photo courtesy of Bailey.

She also worked with The Lazarus Rite, which helps formerly incarcerated people prepare for jobs, obtain gainful employment, learn about budgeting, and develop soft skills to support their success. Bailey developed a survey to help the organization prepare to apply for a grant, and analyzed the survey data. 

UMBC’s community leadership program, “definitely helped me get a holistic perspective of what it actually takes to run an organization and the type of tenacity and creativity you need,” she says. Bailey currently works for the Interagency Commission on School Construction for the State of Maryland, and also serves as an administrator of programs and finance, and the liaison for the Maryland Board of Education. She plans to continue that while starting to build a nonprofit supporting physical, mental, and financial wellness.

Creative problem solver

When Princess Sara Njemanze ‘21, chemical engineering, came to UMBC as a freshman, she knew that she wanted to find opportunities to build and to support communities. She started by joining the Shriver Center’s Living Learning Community, a residential floor bringing together students focused on meaningful social change. The experience proved so significant that she remained connected to the group for four years, transitioning through roles as a peer mentor and then as a resident assistant. “It’s my life,” she says, smiling.

Njemanze, second from right in second row, with her fellow Orientation Peer Advisors in 2018. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

As she explored possibilities for her degree and career paths, Njemanze knew she enjoyed fixing problems through science and engineering and that she loved connecting with people. After meeting Vivian Armor ‘73, American studies, director of the Alex. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship, Njemanze decided to register for an entrepreneurship class. There, she got a chance to partner with students from all different majors and to come up with a product to pitch for a Shark Tank-style presentation. Before long, she added minors in both computer science and entrepreneurship to her degree.

As a France-Merrick Fellow, Njemanze worked with a group of her peers to create initiatives that work to address challenges in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. “Something that I’m really proud of that we worked on and saw the fruits was hosting a leadership program for high school students at Lansdowne High School,” she explains, adding that they asked the students to envision their ideal communities. 

Njemanze, fifth from right, and the France-Merrick 2018-2019 cohort. Photo by Raquel Hamner ’20.

The high school students came to UMBC for a day-long leadership training and created art that was displayed at OCA Mocha, a coffee shop and community gathering space in downtown Arbutus. Njemanze says the opportunity to connect with younger students was meaningful to her and impacted her UMBC experience.

Njemanze, second from right in front row, with her classmates in Introduction to Intercultural Communication class. Photo courtesy of Njemanze.

During her time at UMBC, Njemanze interned at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, where she was offered a job that will begin after graduation, combining her passion for engineering and creative problem solving. Her long-term vision is creating a nonprofit to support underserved communities gain access to knowledge and skills such as financial literacy, college readiness, and leadership development. 

Supporting mental health through tech

Tristan King ‘21, individualized studies, created his own path at UMBC after transferring from Howard Community College (HCC), where he earned an associates degree in computer science. While King was at HCC, he met Joshua Massey ‘14, individualized studies, who was teaching an entrepreneurship course. By talking with Massey during his office hours King learned that at UMBC he could design his own major, and he began to explore the possibilities.

King shares that his personal mental health struggles led him to create a major at UMBC that focused on how technology could support mental health and wellbeing. Through an emerging field called digital therapeutics, he explains, some health care providers are prescribing apps and websites to provide support and resources to people with depression and other mental health challenges. 

King testing the UMBC-UCI-Toyota research prototype. Photo by Sarah King.

At UMBC, King began learning more about tech and accessibility. He worked with Ravi Kuber, associate professor of information systems, on creating obstacle-detection tools so that blind runners could complete their runs independently and safely (research supported by Toyota). King also worked with Lee Boot, director of UMBC’s Imaging Research Center, on data visualization research. 

In 2020, he participated in UMBC’s annual Idea Competition through the Alex. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship. His team earned second place for the Sproutful System, which includes a plant container outfitted with sensors that transmit to a phone app, helping the user know what their plant needs to thrive. The app also features daily guided meditations. The idea is that a person will care for themselves and their plant in a daily meditative practice that is both relaxing and rewarding. 

King, top, and his collaborator Andrew Park ’21, individualized studies, presenting at the Idea Competition in 2020.

King’s senior capstone project uses virtual reality to translate metaphor therapy to an immersive environment. “It looks at how people describe depression and anxiety, and sort of visualizes it,” he says. The project combined what he learned through health psychology coursework with his computer science skills, interest in supporting mental health, creativity, and ingenuity to yield a thought-provoking tool.

Energy and commitment

When Amina Mahmood ‘21, computer science, was younger, she would routinely get viruses on her family’s desktop computer while playing online games. Her computing skill set has certainly grown and changed over the years, but her passion for the field remains the same. 

As she was applying to colleges, Mahmood focused on institutions with strong resources for students pursuing computer science. She felt elated when offered a spot in UMBC’s Cyber Scholars program, housed within the Center for Women in Technology. She wanted to make the most of each and every opportunity that came her way.

Mahmood, right, at a CWIT event. Photo courtesy of Mahmood.

That is how Mahmood, as a new freshman at UMBC, found herself at the UMBC Career Center’s campus career fair, 10 copies of her resume in hand. She didn’t yet have work experience in computing, and wasn’t quite sure of the protocol, but she committed to handing out each one of those resumes before she left. 

Before the end of the day, Mahmood connected with Huntress Labs, a start-up company based in bwtech@UMBC. Huntress Labs offered her an internship, and she worked there part-time through her sophomore year.

She also went on to complete internships at Parsons, a company that develops digital solutions in the security, defense, and infrastructure industries; Systems and Tech Research; and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. There, she will soon begin a full-time job as a cyber engineer, where she will focus on reverse engineering, one of her computing-related passions.

A world of opportunities

While completing her courses and interning, Mahmood took advantage of unique learning opportunities. She received a scholarship to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of women in technology. She also studied abroad in the United Kingdom in spring 2020, traveling to Paris and London before the program ended early due to the emergence of COVID-19. 

Mahmood in Paris. Photo courtesy of Mahmood.

Mahmood’s approach of taking on new challenges with energy and commitment extended to other aspects of her life at UMBC. When she found that UMBC offered limited on-campus halal dining options, she worked with the Student Dining Advisory Committee to expand those options. In her junior year her tenacity paid off. UMBC opened Halal Shack as a permanent halal dining option in The Commons, also popular with vegetarian and vegan diners.

Mahmood, third from right, at the ribbon cutting event opening Halal Shack in The Commons. Photo by UMBC Dining.

Knowing the potential of her organizing to positively impact other people motivated Mahmood to push forward the work until it became a reality. “I’m the youngest in my family, but what if I have a daughter or a nephew and they come to UMBC, what would I want them to experience?” she asked herself. “I just want to use my skill set and whatever I can do to be beneficial to other people.”

Gaining confidence as entrepreneur

Jason Jozwiak, M.S. ‘21, information systems, came to UMBC with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, a decade working as a software developer, and two years teaching English in Ukraine through the Peace Corps. As a Peaceworker Fellow with UMBC’s Shriver Center, he had an opportunity to pursue his master’s degree in information systems while working part-time with Baltimore City’s Department of General Services, and completing a social change leadership program.

Jozwiak (in blue hat) and fellow Peaceworkers in Baltimore, 2020. Photo by Charlotte Keniston.

Jozwiak began working with the City of Baltimore before the COVID-19 pandemic began, developing software to help his department digitize records. During the pandemic, the City began using that same software to record COVID-19 data to support contact tracing efforts.

That experience broadened his sense of the kinds of community impacts he could have through a career in computing. After graduation, he plans to expand his software development work in partnership with another emerging entrepreneur. 

Jozwiak giving a presentation related to his work with Baltimore City. Photo by James Trimarco of the Department of General Services.

“UMBC helped open my eyes to the possibilities and opportunities that are available,” says Jozwiak. “Entrepreneurship is something that I’ve been interested in for a long time. There are inherent risks involved and it’s kind of scary trying to piece it together. But I learned that I know what I’m doing. It helped give me the confidence.” 

Finding community

Jameka Wiggins ‘21, chemical engineering, remembers when representatives from UMBC’s Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) visited her high school in Prince George’s County, Maryland. They offered a glimpse into the kind of experience she might have as a CWIT Scholar, including a tight-knit community of mutual support. She was accepted into the scholars program and says, simply, “CWIT was my community coming into UMBC. They always made sure we had a community of supporters, that we were engaged in the program, and that we felt welcome at the university.”

That community proved particularly important when Wiggins struggled with the transition to college life, worrying that she didn’t belong. Working through that challenging time motivated her to shift from focusing on lab research to engineering education itself as a career path.

Wiggins, second from left, with Elfreda Atoe ’19, political science; Krystal Ogun, ’19, information systems; Alayla Stone-Abernathy ’20, health administration and policy; and Cheyenne Oliver ’20, biological sciences, at an event for The Lambda Phi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. Photo courtesy of Wiggins.

During her sophomore year, Wiggins, who is also a member of the UMBC chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, decided that she wanted to gain research experience. She applied to the NSF’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, which supported her summer research on optimizing oleaginous yeast cell factories in UMBC’s chemical, biochemical, and environmental engineering department. 

The next year she accessed a very different kind of experience as a Shattuck Fellow through the UMBC Career Center and as a participant in the Maryland Technology Internship Program for Entrepreneurship. These initiatives allowed her to intern multiple semesters for the start-up Athena Environmental Sciences, with Sheldon Broedel, associate director of UMBC’s master’s in professional studies in biotechnology program.

As she was exploring these opportunities, Wiggins realized that she was not the only student who would benefit from academic support outside of the classroom. She and a group of her peers worked with the UMBC Academic Success Center to provide tutors for upper-level engineering courses. And she also began looking at career pathways in engineering that were focused on community and belonging.

Change agent

In fall 2020, Wiggins, also a McNair Scholar, began working with Jamie Gurganus, associate director of engineering education, on a project that would shape her trajectory. They conducted research on the engineering mindset and experiences of Black first-year students, including those who are and are not in scholars programs.

Wiggins and Gurganus explored how to foster a sense of community among these students, which has been demonstrated to support resilience and degree attainment. Their study found that participants experienced particular challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as isolation and difficulty finding their footing in classes.

Wiggins, second from right, with Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, second from left, in Annapolis as a bill hearing. Photo courtesy of Wiggins.

In addition to her interest in supporting college students, Wiggins committed time to supporting younger students as well. She volunteered for the Refugee Youth Project’s College Journey Upward Mentoring Program (College JUMP), where she mentored a high school student in Baltimore City and helped her with the college admissions process. This experience led Wiggins to become a leader in the program, creating curricula for students and supporting mentors. 

She also worked with some of her peers to create the LIFT Mentoring Program, which connects upper-level students with underclassmen in the same or similar majors to support informal mentorship and guidance outside of the classroom. 

And along the way, she took on other leadership roles through UMBC’s Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Center and UMBC’s Inclusion Council.

These research, mentoring, and leadership experiences have inspired Wiggins to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering education. Her emphasis will be on developing undergraduate student support services to increase the retention and representation of underrepresented populations in engineering. “I will serve as a change agent,” she says.

Banner image: Kiaron Bailey, second from right, with her classmates in Baltimore. Photo courtesy of Bailey.