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Aiming for <strike>the Stars</strike> Mars

Hillman Entrepreneurs Program Helps Launch Students’ CareersHillman Entrepreneurs Program Helps Launch Students’ Careers

By Chris Carroll

Astronaut

Photo by John T. Consoli/Line Illustration by Jeanette J. Nelson

Photo by John T. Consoli/Line Illustration by Jeanette J. Nelson

Aerospace engineering major Hermann Kaptui Sipowa ’17 has long dreamed of climbing out of a spacecraft onto the surface of Mars, but as he struggled to pay rent and tuition at Montgomery College, the recent immigrant from Cameroon couldn’t even see a path to a four-year degree, let alone NASA’s astronaut program. 

Then a counselor at the community college posed what seemed like an odd question: Could he be an entrepreneur? 

“She described it as someone who strongly wants to bring about change and apply their knowledge to make other people’s lives better,” he said. “I identified myself in that, and she filled out the application that changed my life.”

HillmanSoon, Kaptui Sipowa was accepted into the Hillman Entrepreneurs Program, which helps students at Montgomery College and Prince George’s Community College afford an education at the University of Maryland while fostering a dynamic community of motivated entrepreneur-scholars at all three locations.

He’s one of dozens of Terps who are thriving through the David H. and Suzanne D. Hillman Family Foundation. It established the program a decade ago and has continued to support it, most recently with a $3 million gift to fund scholarships and operation of the center.

It’s a way of strengthening communities and families in the locations where David Hillman established and grew his successful real estate management firm, Southern Management Corp., says Suzanne Hillman, who is also a trustee for the University of Maryland College Park Foundation. 

From their own entrepreneurial success, the Hillmans wanted to nurture an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” to give students opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had, and develop ethical, community-focused leaders.

“When we started making some profits, investing in our communities where our buildings are located was something we wanted to do,” she says. “We wanted to give back, and when trying to decide how to give back, we thought education is really the greatest gift you can give someone.”

The program broadly defines the term “entrepreneur,” says its director, Gül Branco. About 40 percent of students (numbering 107 at UMD and 30 each at the two community colleges) are pursuing business degrees, and the rest study subjects ranging from computer science to public health. The thread that unites them is a desire to make a difference, whether it’s leading space exploration or starting a revolutionary business, Branco says.

“We look for students who are resilient, who are persistent, who are driven, can think outside the box and who want to become leaders and take on challenges,” she says. “Then what we do is inspire them, empower them and teach them how to be entrepreneurial.”

It leads to frequent internships—and jobs—with firms like Deloitte, PwC, Acccenture, Ernst and Young, Morgan Stanley and more, she says.

Kaptui Sipowa, who plans to start an engineering Ph.D. program next fall, says the experiences in the program have been just as critical as the scholarship support.

“To have that connection to a group of people with the same will to change things, it makes you push yourself,” he says. “Any day you feel a little down, you just look around at this group.”

If he walks on Mars, he says he’ll remember the Hillman family helped put him there.

“Their input in my life was the exact point where my dreams were ignited,” he says. “I began seeing myself as someone who was moving toward being an astronaut, rather than just wishing I could.”

Learn more about supporting the Hillman Entrepreneurs Program by contacting Heidi Bruce, director of alumni affairs and development in the Office of Undergraduate Studies, at habruce@umd.edu or 301.405.6851.

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