Alaska business leaders share knowledge with UAA protégés

by Jamie Gonzales  |   

Xavier Mason and Jonathan Bittner

UAA senior Xavier Mason, a 2014-2015 CBPP Leadership Fellow, and mentor Jon Bittner, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

How do you make that leap from "leadership material" to leader? The right professors, the right books, the right drive and, perhaps most importantly, the right mentor. For senior marketing and management student Xavier Mason, that's Jon Bittner, a UAA alumnus now working as deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development (DCCED).

The College of Business and Public Policy's new class of Leadership Fellows-Mason's cohort of 14 graduate and undergraduate students-has spent the last four months working closely with community mentors. Each mentor was hand-selected by the Leadership Fellows program director, Terry Nelson, based on a "wish list" from each of her fellows.

"My wish list? Definitely experience in entrepreneurship, experience in finances, small business management, things of that sort," said Mason. Bittner spent several years at Anchorage Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) before moving to DCCED. He founded Alaska Makers Group, teaches entrepreneurship classes at The Boardoom, serves on the board for Anchorage Community Works and was named to the Alaska Top Forty Under 40 this year, to name just a few of his achievements that made him an ideal match for Mason.

"The College of Business and Public Policy reached out to me and told me they were looking for mentors to work with UAA students and one of the students they were working with was interested in entrepreneurship," said Bittner. "I've done some work in that area. Can't get me to shut up about it, normally, so I figured that might be a good mix." He and Mason have been working together as mentor and protégé ever since, meeting a couple times a month to talk business, swap ideas and flesh out solutions to some of the challenges of entrepreneurship.

Finding common ground

Mason was thrilled to learn that Bittner had started a magazine, Alaska Innovator, with his colleague, Valerie Walsh, while at AEDC. Mason's own magazine, VisualAid, started in 2013 as a late-night dorm room experiment, is now a widely read publication in East Africa.

"It's inspirational content," he said. Past issues feature poetry, inspirational quotes and stories about Michael Jackson, Susan B. Anthony, George Washington Carver and Frederick Douglass, to name just a few. "It's got around 20,000 readers in a number of schools around Kenya. Right now it's distributed to orphans, so it's inspirational stories about people who came from similar circumstances and how much they've accomplished in life."

Bittner was able to share his experiences with magazine start-up, offering advice on incorporating advertisers into future editions to create a self-sustaining publication.

"It's interesting-giving advice is easy, but giving advice to someone who might actually follow through on it is a whole different ballgame!" said Bittner with a laugh. "It really forces me to think things all the way through and evaluate what got me to where I am today. The whole process has been a lot of fun, and I was lucky enough to get an amazing protégé. Xavier is fantastic, and he's doing a lot of amazing things both in the community and internationally. Plus he laughs at all my jokes, which is really what I look for in a mentor-protégé relationship."

What comes after the mentor-protégé relationship?

Program director Nelson has been wowed by the generosity of business leaders from companies like NANA, BP and Foraker Group making time for the Leadership Fellows. (See the full list of mentor-protégé match-ups at the bottom of this article.)

"The mentors have gone above and beyond our expectations," she said. "While we requested that they meet with their protégé at least once a month, most mentors are meeting with their protégé every two weeks. What is really exciting is the mentors are arranging job shadowing, providing career guidance and helping their protégé to increase their network capital. CBPP is ecstatic with the progress of the program. Our mentors are phenomenal."

Although Bittner and Mason are only formally matched through the Leadership Fellows program for the 2014-2015 academic year, Bittner doesn't see an impending wrap-up to their relationship.

"I never asked how it ends," Bittner joked. "I just assumed he'd get bored and stop coming. From my perspective, I don't know that it does end. It won't be quite as formalized as this. Xavier is a great guy. He's going to do amazing things and I'd love to find a way to be a part of that going forward. Until he gets tired of me, I think he's stuck with me."

Mason, who graduates with the Class of 2015 in May, is eager to turn his full attention to the entrepreneurial projects that have kept him busy 60 hours a week during the summer. Chances are, he'll be glad to have Bittner in his corner, a phone call away if he needs advice.

2014-2015 Leadership Fellows and Mentors

Andrew Romerdahl, UAA Weidner Chair and Providence Real Estate Alexandra Weill-Marsolais, marketing & management major

Patty Hickock, Director, NANA Employee Relations Bridgette Coleman, marketing & management major

Marva Watson, Director, UAA Office of Campus Diversity and Compliance Chantae Kochuten, management major, communication minor

Jon Bittner, DCCED Deputy Commissioner Xavier Mason, marketing & management major

Jay Blury, Marketing Manager, Northrim Bank Lauren Riley, MBA program

Dennis McMillian, CEO, Foraker Group Nicholas Morrill, MBA program, management track

Florian Borowski, HR Manager, Schlumberger Heather Karwowski, MBA program

Chuck Coulson, President, BP Pipelines (Alaska) Inc. Sarah Henry, MBA program

Gideon Garcia, COO, CIRI Travel Amy Miller, MBA program

Katherine Jernstrom and Brit Szymoniak, Owners, The Boardroom Al Hermann, UAA Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship Peter Arlein, MBA program, business intelligence and data analytics

Rick Fox, Senior Vice President, Edison Chouest Offshore Laura Cameron, MBA program

Bruce Tangeman, Vice President, Administration and Finance for the Alaska Pipeline Development Corporation Misha Sajjad, MBA program

Jeff Kinneeveauk, CEO, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation Energy Services Marvindan Anunciacion, MBA program

Janet Weiss, President, BP Exploration Kevin Mihm, MBA program

Written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement

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