Tailored for business

Mellem Business Symposium panelists share experiences and advice with UND’s next leaders in action

Steve Light, Eric Trueblood and Jules Kotrba

Interim Dean of the UND College of Business & Public Administration Steve Light (left) discusses business experiences of alums Eric Trueblood and Jules Kotrba, UND’s newest Young Alumni Achievement Award winners, during the recent Mellem Business Symposium. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

The future of business will grow on soft skills and hard grit.

The University of North Dakota equips its students with both.

It was a simple, yet powerful message coming from the three UND alums-turned-business-leaders seated at the front of the Gorecki Alumni Center on Oct. 5 for the 2017 Mellem Business Symposium.

Sioux Award winner Al Royse and 2017 Young Alumni Achievement Award recipients Jules Kotrba and Eric Trueblood comprised a panel that drew a full-house crowd to the Gransberg Community Room – most of them students.

“UND gave me the start and the tools necessary to keep me going,” said Royse, the current national chairman of the American Heart Association and former chair of UND’s Alumni Foundation Board of Directors.

In recognition of the College of Business & Public Administration’s (CoBPA) celebration of 100 years of business classes – the first of which were offered in 1917 – the theme of the seventh annual symposium was the “Future of Business Education.”

And sometimes, calling on the past experiences of others is the best way to prepare for what’s next.

“Our students are always looking not just at what is happening in classroom, but also where they want to head in the future. They’re inspired by stories of success,” said CoBPA Interim Dean Steve Light. “What was great about tonight was that our panelists connected their hard work and preparation at UND to the opportunities and achievements that followed.”

The future of the CoBPA itself is a bright one – it was recently rated 216 out of 250 ranked schools in the 2018 U.S. News & World Report’s list of Best Undergraduate Business Programs, making it the only ranked program in the state.

Eric Trueblood, Jules Kotrba and Al Royse

Al Royse (right), a former head of the American Heart Association and 2017 Sioux Award winner, joins Trueblood and Kotrba at the Mellem Business Symposium during Homecoming Week on campus. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Experience and grit

Royse was the first to mention “grit” as a cornerstone of the UND experience, but it was a notion that carried through the night. Trueblood, a UND marketing graduate who is now the co-owner of the WWII aircraft restoration company AirCorps Aviation, says that fearless work ethic pushed him to take a risk and start his business.

“Al brought up grit, and I think it’s such a unique quality that is instilled from a very young age in our region of the United States,” the Minot, N.D. native said. “I feel as a UND graduate, I also have that sense of grit. I didn’t really have a fear of being able to start something that seemed different.”

Kotrba, who grew up in Grand Forks and graduated with a UND marketing degree, now leads Pandora Jewelry’s global trade and customs division for North and South America. Her own engrained grit was paired with the extra experiences she sought as a student, studying abroad in China and later teaching English at the University of Shanghai.

“The Chinese business program is really what set me off on my international career,” Kotrba told the crowd, advising students to take advantage of UND educational travel opportunities like class trips to Washington D.C. and Weekends in Winnipeg. “Do any extra thing that comes your way. Why not?”

Royse says he’s seeing many more venues for experiential learning at the University now, which help develop three buckets of skills he sees as necessary for today’s business students – learning how to learn, communication and a sense of global awareness.

“This is a global world. It’s getting smaller, not bigger,” Royse said.

The panel took questions from the audience and offered additional advice to students, urging them to build relationships with faculty, pay attention to and connect the dots between classes, and be nimble and curious.

But most important to business success, they agreed, is persistence and passion.

“Believe in what you want to do and do it, and you make sure you do it until it’s done,” Royse said.

“You just have to buckle down,” Trueblood said. “You just have to really stick with it.”

Sophomore Aviation Management major Colby Smith appreciated the alumni’s embodiment of Midwest grit and passion. “People don’t hesitate to work as hard as they can, which is what makes the University of North Dakota great,” he said.

Supporting passion

The Mellem Business Symposium is named for the lecture series’ sponsors, CoBPA alumni Ken and JoAnn Mellem. The event would not be possible without their generous endowment, which will allow the symposium to continue for years into the future.

“This symposium is super special to me,” Kotrba said. “Ken Mellem was probably my ultimate mentor and number one fan. Without him, I likely wouldn’t be here today.”

“We couldn’t possibly hold such a fantastic panel on the future of business education if we didn’t have supporters on whose shoulders we stand, and the Mellems embody that,” Light said. “The generosity of the Mellems, and others like them, people who are so passionate and committed to this College and its success – that’s what creates our bridge to the future of business education and business itself.”

The Mellems wanted the annual symposium to serve as a venue to foster discussions of business, government and society among UND students, faculty and staff, and to share knowledge with area business and community leaders.

Prior keynote speakers for the Mellem Business Symposium have included Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter and former Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith.