Editor’s Note — This Q&A is part of a weekly conversation series that is celebrating Pride Month on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Medium page. The series will feature Huskers who are making impacts on campus and look to maintain that momentum in future careers.
For this first week of Pride Month 2022, we’re talking with Maria Heyen, an international business and Clifton Builders management major from Astoria, Oregon. Heyen’s college experience has been defined by being heavily involved with campus organizations, which has in turn built her confidence and taught new skills. Now, Heyen has taken her passion for involvement a step further by getting involved with the Husker Venture Fund, which provides students with hands-on startup investing experience.
How did you first become interested in entrepreneurship?
In my sophomore year, through my Clifton Builders Classes, I became tapped into the entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus and within the Lincoln community. Through the Builders Program, I began working as a Venture Capital and Innovation Intern at Nelnet working with Brian Ardinger and Chuck Norris, both of them helped form Lincoln’s entrepreneurial ecosystem pretty early on, and learning from them was a very impactful and defining experience for me. It was during this time that I became deeply interested in entrepreneurship and discovered entrepreneurial traits in myself that I hadn’t recognized before.
Talk a little bit about Husker Venture Fund and what your involvement there looks like.
My friend, Emily Kist, started the Husker Venture Fund (HVF) alongside Adam Folsom and Keith Nordling to help provide students with hands-on startup investing experience. I applied for HVF in early fall and was the only female applicant. My acceptance into HVF made me 1 of 2 women in the fund among 25 men. Being a woman interested in finance, I know this will not be the last time I am “outnumbered.” I am lucky that the members of HVF have created a space for me where I am valued and respected. Moving forward into next year, intentional recruitment of women and BIPOC is at the forefront of the organization’s goals. It is important that we are intentionally bringing in students that have typically been excluded from the world of venture capital. I am incredibly excited to continue my involvement in HVF and am ready to be a part of some great organizational change.
As a member of the Clifton Builders Program, you talk about wanting to build culture. Talk about why that is so important and the power of a strong, positive culture.
I truly believe that culture is everything. In a world where people are demanding a new way of work, it is becoming increasingly important that people feel valued and connected to culture. A company is more likely to succeed when it promotes a positive culture that encourages unity, healthy competition, and inclusion. I want to build a culture where people are not only supported but are pushed to produce their best work. I have been fortunate to work at Nelnet, Nebraska Angels, and Yoo and Co. Accelerators — companies that have strong, healthy cultures felt throughout the organization. I want to emulate these same cultural characteristics when I build my next venture.
How have your involvements on campus, from Pride in Business to being an RA, shaped your college experience?
Being involved on campus is an extremely important factor in the college experience. Everyone goes to class and does homework but what truly cultivates and creates your unique college experience is your involvement. Being involved in a variety of organizations and institutions on and off campus has helped shape my college experience, my identity, and the things I truly care about.
I remember coming to college and being so desperate for community. I remember asking myself how I could recreate the community that I had in high school. My first month at school was really difficult because I wasn’t involved. I felt lost. Slowly, I became engaged on campus and my experience took a complete 180-degree turn.
The Clifton Strengths Institute and the Center for Entrepreneurship have had such an amazing impact on my college experience. Dr. Tim Hodges and Dr. Sam Nelson have been great mentors for me and I am so lucky to be an influential member of those institutions. Husker Venture Fund and StartupsUNL have connected me to a diverse community of entrepreneurially minded students and have given me the people who are my college friends. Pride in Business has helped validate my presence as someone who identifies as LGBTQIA+ within the College of Business. I am a more globally-minded, inclusive, and confident person because of these organizations and institutions.
What do you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
When my mother was pregnant with me, she asked my father, “What do you think our child will accomplish? Who do you think they will be?” My mom rattled off professions and accomplishments. My dad paused for a while and said, “I want our child to be a good person.” Reflecting on what I truly want to accomplish in my life, I just want to be a good person.
What or who inspires you?
The list is too long! I tend to find inspiration in almost everyone I meet but here are some of the ones I am closest to who have inspired me to lead my life in an authentic and impactful way every day.
I’ll start with my parents. As a 4th grader, my dad worked every lunch recess washing dishes for his school meals. My mom put her whole life on pause to have me. My parent’s hard work, raw sacrifice, and unconditional love have provided me with so much pure richness in my life and I am eternally grateful.
My friends Erika, Erica, Mal, Megan and Emily inspire me every day. I am proud to call these authentic, driven, and passionate women my friends. I am so lucky that I get to be surrounded by people who truly want me to be the best version of myself. There’s a saying that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, and I can only hope to be the average of these women. Alongside all of the other wonderful friends that hang out in the Center for Entrepreneurship: Keith, Ateev, Hunter, Harrison, and so many others!
Finally, my girlfriend Grace. Grace has given me unwavering support and has made me feel like I belong in all spaces. She has significantly impacted my confidence regarding my sexuality and validated me every step of the way. She inspires me to lead with empathy and kindness.
What is your advice to other students looking to make an impact on campus?
My mom always told me “90% of life is just showing up.” Everything I am involved in I just showed up to. It can be scary and daunting but events are held for a reason and people want you there! I literally met my best college friends, founded a startup, and have a community all because I showed up to a Chipotle Fundraiser. Showing up and contributing to an organization is an impact itself. And if there’s not an existing organization that you feel passionate about…start one.