Graduating senior Maria Heyen, an international business and Clifton Builders management major from Astoria, Oregon, built a legacy of inclusion while carving her path at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Business.
Struggling to meet others, she credits her peer CliftonStrengths coach with helping her realize she did belong, which she then decided to emulate for others.
“My student coach, Monica Wahlmeier, was the first person in the busy first few weeks who looked me straight in the eyes and asked me how I was doing,” Heyen said about the coach she was paired with for the Investing in Strengths course that all first-year business students take. “She challenged me to take my natural talents, invest in them and help those talents transform into strengths. Thinking about all the things that were ‘right with me’ instead of wrong was the catalyst for my successful college experience. It grew my confidence in ways I could have never imagined and shaped the way I thought about my future.”
With new fervor from the eight weeks of strengths coaching first-year business students receive, Heyen challenged herself to get involved on campus and build her community. She attended meetings for student organizations like StartupsUNL and Pride in Business, where she made friends and found colleagues. Along the way, she helped other students as a resident assistant and a student CliftonStrengths coach.
“It can be scary and daunting to just show up to a new group, but events are held for a reason, and people want you there,” she said. “I met my best college friends, founded a startup and have a community all because I once showed up to a fundraiser at a restaurant. Getting involved makes an impact itself. If there’s not an existing organization that you feel passionate about, start one.”
Working in an international summer internship for nine weeks in Barcelona, Spain, became a pivotal moment in her college experience. Armed with only basic Spanish language skills, she fully immersed herself in the culture and language to help a real estate startup Privalore. Out of her comfort zone, she forced herself to quickly adapt to a new pace of business in a new language, as her job included gathering data and relevant information and reporting it back to her employer.
”I was really scared at first. It was a difficult experience. I had to decide around day four or five to either wallow and not take advantage of the privilege of learning in Spain or do the difficult thing and embrace it to see what I could gain,” she said. “I’m so glad I chose the latter. I learned to be scrappy with my problem-solving skills and learned to be proactive instead of reactive.”
When she returned to Nebraska, she took her passion for involvement even further by engaging with the Husker Venture Fund, a fund built by alumni and university supporters that offers hands-on investment experience to students and funds early-stage startups in Nebraska. She quickly realized she was one of only two women in the organization. As she grew into a managing director role, she passionately pursued her goal of encouraging more women and non-business majors to the organization.
“Venture capital is known for its exclusivity and closed doors, and we wanted to change that. Being a woman interested in finance, I know this will not be the last time I am ‘outnumbered,’ but I’m proud to say that our second class of HVF associates is composed of 20% women, and 21% students outside the College of Business,” she said. “We are intentionally bringing in students who typically have been excluded from the world of venture capital.”
Heyen and her venture fund teammates competed this spring in the Venture Capital Investment Competition Undergraduate Finals. The team first won the New England regional finals in Boston, defeating schools like Dartmouth, New York University, Tufts and Oregon. They moved on to the global finals, finishing third among 50 teams, just behind the University of Michigan and Miami University of Ohio.
Her impact grew her senior year, and accolades stacked up, including the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Student Luminary Award, Clifton Strengths Institute Outstanding Builder and Mark Pogue Awards, College of Business Student of the Month and Graduating Student of the Year.
“In all of her roles on campus, Maria demonstrated exceptional leadership and consistently increased the level of engagement of her peers through positivity and inclusivity,” said Sam Nelson, venture fund adviser, director of the Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship and associate professor of practice in management. “Not only does she include everyone — even older faculty members like me — she also has exceptional influencing skills and leverages them to drive positive change in HVF, the college, the Center for Entrepreneurship and outward into the Nebraska startup community.”
As Heyen looks to her future, she reflects on the community, knowledge and experiences she gained at Nebraska. She is excited to apply them in a new adventure as a venture associate with Scale-VC in Columbia, Missouri.
“Scale’s founder-driven thesis, the personal relationships they build with founders, and the effects of local founders re-investing in the community is something special. I am ready to be a part of it all,” she said. “Graduating from Nebraska marks the end of my journey on campus and the end of my everyday impact on the communities I helped build. But it also marks the start of me taking what I’ve learned into my next community. I am excited to embrace the future and proud of my time at Nebraska. I am a better person, citizen and leader because of the people here at Nebraska.”