By Emily Margaretten
Only three years old, the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) at City College exemplifies the success story of a plucky start-up, as it prevailed over other community colleges to capture the Heather Van Sickle Entrepreneurial College of the Year Award from the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE).
Interim Vice Chancellor Dianna Gonzales affirmed the college’s commitment to advance entrepreneurship on its campus and wider community when she signed the Presidents for Entrepreneurship Pledge during a press conference on Oct. 12.
Rebecca Corbin, President and CEO of NACCE, praised the leadership of City College and its willingness to embrace entrepreneurial programming as part of its institutional culture. “I think the leadership of the college really has empowered the faculty to start these programs,” Corbin said in an interview.
“And that’s what we see all over the country from hundreds and hundreds of colleges,” she continued. “Leadership in an entrepreneurial way needs to happen at multiple levels. It’s got to start with the chancellor and the president and flow through the entire institution.”
While Corbin emphasized the importance of leadership in top administrative positions, the implementation of entrepreneurial programming at City College largely came to fruition through the vision and grit of one particular faculty member, Vivian Faustino-Pulliam, or “Prof. V” as affectionately called by her students.
Faustino-Pulliam pitched her entrepreneurship ideas to City College administrators in 2018. Initially, they expressed skepticism about her proposal, but Faustino-Pulliam was undeterred. “Entrepreneurs always are being told no,” she said. Instead of giving up, she decided to run the center like a start-up and appealed to different deans and department chairs to back the initiative.
Faustino-Pulliam also realized that showing results was the most effective way to generate support. “I couldn’t get their buy-in until I got small wins,” she said. So, she started with free entrepreneurship workshops that attracted large numbers of attendees and a year later expanded this to an introductory class that quickly exceeded its enrollment cap of 40 students.
The administration took notice and small wins turned into bigger ones when CEI started to secure national recognition through award competitions, partnerships, and funding opportunities with larger industries and community organizations.
Not at all surprised by these accomplishments, Ysabelle Bernal, a student who took Faustino-Pulliam’s introductory class, commented, “She’s small in stature but goes after what she wants. She’s a go-getter.”
Today, CEI offers six interdisciplinary certificates with two more in development, demonstrating the fluidity and applicability of entrepreneurial thinking to a diverse range of academic
disciplines. As Marina Noel, a staff member at CEI, stated, “We have a variety of certificates that students can take because we believe that entrepreneurship is not just for business majors. It’s for everybody.”
The center’s focus on inclusivity and accessibility also reflects a deeper commitment to equity in higher education. The mission of CEI explicitly draws on Faustino-Pulliam’s experiences as a Filipino-American woman and immigrant. Being an entrepreneur, she explained, was more than running a business. It was a mindset and life skill that gave her the chance to prove her ideas mattered—something she wants to extend to other underserved populations.
“With the explosion of entrepreneurial opportunities around us, I’d like to make sure that women of color, those with accents, and those without the strong pedigrees, such as a Harvard education, can also participate in and reap the benefits of this growing social movement,” Faustino-Pulliam said during the press conference.
For Bernal, this inclusivity and accessibility was critical to her own growth as an entrepreneur. “Fifty percent of the courage that I got presenting a loan [in front of industry leaders] I got from her,” Bernal said. “If she can teach at City College with an accent and as a woman, I also can do it.
While the NACCE award provides external validation of CEI’s approach to entrepreneurship, the center has experienced its share of challenges. Faustino-Pulliam, who teaches part-time, described a large portion of her work as “pro bono” and CEI as “one of the least funded centers” at City College. Noel corroborated Faustino-Pulliam’s statements and noted that even invited speakers waive their usual fees and present as unpaid volunteers.
The shoestring budget of the center has not hampered its growth though. Using the model of an agile start-up, CEI has responded quickly to student interests, creating entrepreneurial programs to meet their needs. The newness of the center actually is an advantage.
“It’s a blessing I had to start from scratch, Faustino-Pulliam said. “I didn’t have any kind of legacy issues. I was able to start with a vision. And with the help of other consultants and administrators, we were able to build something more relevant to the current demographics rather than continuing on and changing things that already were well-entrenched.”
The demographics of CEI skews to an older student population, many of whom already have advanced degrees. Faustino-Pulliam explained that her students often are underemployed and looking to start their own businesses.
Richard Zavalo fits this profile. He is working towards a certificate in Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management and recently pivoted from a nonprofit career in marriage and family therapy to open a wine bar. Zavalo credits Faustino-Pulliam with showing him how to create and present a business plan and to raise funds for his new venture.
Similarly, Melanie Tam developed the idea for a self-improvement app, Dreamly, while taking Faustino-Pulliam’s entrepreneurship course. Tam explained that she benefited from the structure of the class, which helped her meet deadlines, and from the expertise of Faustino-Pulliam and the entrepreneurs-in-residence program. Tam’s proposal won first place in the pitch competition presented at the end of the class, and she is looking to launch Dreamly, as a fully-built product, next year.
“Vivian definitely has been a big part of my journey,” Tam said. “Whether Dreamly works out or not, I’m always going to remember what I learned in her class and what she taught me. I’m going to embody that and continue to build products.”