Catawba News Service
It takes something pretty amazing to get college students out of the bed voluntarily before the sun rises. Not only were Catawba College students Brandon Lee Coble of Yadkinville, Amanda Sowards of Harrisburg, Rob Fields of Orangeburg, S.C., Jen Trout of Seaford, N.Y., and Skip Walpole of Pembroke Pines, Fla., waiting at the back steps of the Ralph W. Ketner School of Business facility at 5:30 a.m., they were dressed in their best and looking like young professional adults.
The recent road trip to the 26th annual Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) Venture Conference in Pinehurst was not a planned class activity. Instructor Cyndi Allison Wittum casually mentioned to her New Media class that the co-founder of Facebook (the largest social networking site in the world) would be in North Carolina for the convention. Facebook had been one of the topics discussed in class during the semester, and most class members have personal pages on the site.
"The students were really excited. They immediately wanted to go and see Chris Hughes," said Wittum. "Reservations to major conference events are made months in advance, so I didn't think the odds were good. I told the students that if they could get it worked out, we would go."
Coble sent Wittum a Facebook message later that afternoon. He had a contact name and number, but the students needed confirmation and a faculty sponsor.
Wittum contacted Lilith Anderson, CED Associate Director of Development, and discussed the details. CED generously reduced the hefty conference fee and arranged for an escort to meet and seat the group.
"Everything clicked," said Wittum. "The students showed initiative, and CED responded warmly."
The conference day opened with the 2008 Siemens Award winners discussing summer research involving computerized evaluations of genetic targets in the treatment of cancer. Andrew Guo and Sajith Wickramasekara, both high school students, explained how tracking specific genes could lead to individualized and more effective treatment programs for those suffering with cancer.
David Jones, CEO of Peak 10, Inc. of Charlotte, welcomed the Catawba contingent when he took the stage. Jones co-founded Peak 10 in 2000. His company is the leading independent data center operator and managed services provider in the United States. He explained virtualized data environments and how storing information provides innumerable benefits. Health information, for example, can be stored securely online so that physicians can quickly look at detailed records and provide better health care.
Janet Cowell, North Carolina State Treasurer, overviewed issues and concerns with state finances. She mentioned the huge changes and challenges over the last few months as the national financial crisis has hit home. She requested that conference attendees support more flexibility in terms of spending with funds in education, in particular, being rapidly depleted.
The final speaker was Chris Hughes, Facebook co-founder.
Hughes grew up in Hickory, North Carolina. His father worked in the newspaper industry, and his mother was a teacher. Hughes is an only child with different views. During the 1992 presidential election, he noticed that yards in the conservative Hickory area were dotted with Bush signs. When he saw a lonely Clinton sign in one yard, he said, "That’s my guy." Of course, he was only 9 years old, so his political perceptions were rather undeveloped.
By the time, Barack Obama faced off against John McCain, Hughes had become more politically educated and active. His convictions were so strong that he agreed to serve as the New Media Strategist for Obama. He stepped back from his duties at Facebook to focus on working with and for a virtually unknown contender for the presidential seat.
Hughes talked about getting on the computer late at night during the election season and running his hometown zip code and seeing dozens of campaign events planned online and executed by "real people. That's when it hits you," he said. Networking online provides "limitless potential for collaboration."
Hughes stated that "leadership" is an antiquated idea. "It just doesn't resonate," he explained. There's been this idea that certain skills were needed to make a difference. The online environment provides a platform for "everyday people" to step forward and make an impact.
Power is now in "social capital," said Hughes. Social media allows for the transfer of resources and a lower barrier to become part of the discussion.
Hughes did stress that new technology does not change "human nature." He likened interactions of the younger generation to the "playground." Instead of sitting at the lunchroom table talking about homework and who’s cute, kids today do that online. On the other hand, an idea can take shape and develop when tools are available to network and collaborate.
Some adults at the conference expressed concern about high technology communication and the new generation, and Hughes noted that the basic concerns remain the same. He said that parents and teachers have always stressed that young people should be careful about how they present themselves. This remains true in this new environment. Only the context and vocabulary change. Education and guidance remain key components. Adults need to step up and learn how to speak the language.
After the presentation, Hughes visited with convention attendees including the students from Catawba.
"I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to hear him speak and meet him," said Coble.
"I thought the presentation from Chris Hughes was very informative," said Fields. "He really represented our age group with his responses and how he carried himself."
Students attending the conference and hearing the various speakers were inspired by the stories and began brainstorming on the ride home.
Trout said that hearing Hughes "confirmed" her idea that she could make a difference using new technology while Sowards said that attending the conference "made me realize that it is possible to break out as a young entrepreneur and be successful before my 30s."
When Coble got back to campus, he secured an online domain and is working on developing a web site to promote hometown yard sales.
Walpole summed it up. "Being able to meet Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook, has been the most productive Thursday morning of my life."