Stories of inspiration, motivation, and more at Berkeley College Alumni Entrepreneurs Showcase

As part of National Entrepreneurship Month in November, a time to celebrate the entrepreneurs who serve their communities and bolster the American economy, Berkeley College held an Alumni Entrepreneurs Showcase in the gallery at the Woodland Park campus. The event featured a panel of alumni entrepreneurs and was attended by students, faculty, and associates from the College. Displays of the entrepreneurs’ businesses were also featured and the event was even catered by D’s Cozy Kitchen, which is owned and operated by one of the panelists. The event was organized by Michael Iris, Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations and Career Services, and Panagiota Babadelis, Marketing Manager at Berkeley College.

Alumni panelists included:

The path to entrepreneurship

Some of the panelists always dreamed of their own business ventures. Some set out on their own after encouragement from others or to better fit their goals and lifestyles. They shared their stories of how they got started, the challenges they faced, and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

After landing a job in the food service industry through a Berkeley College career fair, Danielle O’Neill made a point to learn everything she could. “I acted like a sponge and tried to absorb everything,” she remembered. “I watched the cooks and learned as much as I could about all aspects of the business.” It was her partner Vanessa Guzman who was instrumental in persuading Danielle to begin her own catering business, D’s Cozy Kitchen. Vanessa and Danielle had met while attending Berkeley. And it was through Danielle’s encouragement that Vanessa expanded the promoting and selling of her artwork. Danielle pointed out, “I’ve always told her how she leaves money on the table. She should be promoting her work and selling it, whether it be through her craftmanship, artistry, graphic designing, and more and that’s when she branded herself as "Guzman Creations.”

Shama Dhanani worked in financial services for 20 years after earning her degree at Berkeley, before changing her focus. She is now a creative, certified clinical hypnotherapist, soul coach, success shaman and meditation teacher at

Rossalvi Marte came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. According to Rossalvi, “It wasn’t easy. I owe a lot to Berkeley College—everyone there believed in me. The education I received and the networking connections I made shaped who I’ve become and gave me the tools I needed.” After working her way up in the corporate world, the mother of two started her own consulting agency, Marte Group.

Shamira Drakeford is a proud Berkeley alum and also served as the Government Relations Coordinator at the College, where she worked with legislators and other elected officials at the federal, state, and local level. Wanting to help give back to the community, she founded Cohesive Connextion and provides connections, resources, and services that help young adults and entrepreneurs grow both personally and professionally. She also remembered the benefits of having entrepreneurs and business owners as professors at Berkeley. “I remember going to their offices, discussing ideas and learning hands-on,” said Shamira. “In fact, a former professor is still my mentor.”

Getting off the ground

Shamira emphasized the importance of having a strong business plan. She noted that it took several years to develop hers. “This is your vision, your baby,” she said. “Stay true to your vision.” Rossalvi agreed when asked about how she got her venture started. “It is important to have a vision,” she said. “See where you’ll be and ask yourself questions like, ‘What will I get out of my business?’ and ‘WilI I have the lifestyle I want?’” She also recommended, “Write down all your ideas in a sketchbook whenever they come to you, so you don’t forget them—even in the middle of the night.” Vanessa also suggested the idea of having a “vision board” as a motivational tool. In addition, Danielle stressed the idea of focus. “Trying to do too much can be overwhelming. If you’re trying to have your hand in everything, you’re not giving your all to anything,” she cautioned. “Taking the leap too soon can cause damage. Keep all your ideas and know when the time is right. You’ll grow.” Shama echoed that idea, saying, “You’ll learn as you go. Know yourself and what you’re good at. Your business plan will evolve.”

Facing challenges and overcoming obstacles

Entrepreneurial pursuits are bound to encounter obstacles according to all of the panelists, who shared how they overcame some of their challenges. Shama discussed the difficulties in the ways in which people sometimes respond to female business owners, yet she remained encouraged at seeing the next generation of women in business. She also spoke of the struggle of “wearing many hats” in launching a business and navigating the financial and marketing aspects of running a business. Rossalvi recalled the “Why?” aspect of starting her business, saying that her goal was to “Build a business that supported my lifestyle, not the other way around. My self-care and well-being were important to me, I needed to create a work/life balance.” Danielle talked about “taking the leap,” saying, “Take the risks. It may not always be pretty, and you may have setbacks, but keep up the fight and believe in yourself.”

Reinventing oneself

“To be a business owner, reinvention is inevitable,” according to Shama. Vanessa went on, “You need to step outside of your comfort zone and figure out how to get things done.” Danielle added, “You need to learn to handle the tasks that others used to do. Finding ways to address challenges has made me into the person I used to call!” “Leadership skills are also very important,” Rossalvi said. “Learning how to treat people can help you build something worthwhile.”

Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs

“Just do it,” offered Danielle. “I know it sounds obvious, but don’t be afraid. If you never doubt yourself, you’ll never succeed. It’s about facing the challenges and overcoming them.” Shama continued, “Be ready fiscally and prepare your mind. Deal with the self-doubt and don’t let it get to you.” She reassuringly advised, “Don’t listen to the doubters and the naysayers. You’ll develop strength from within yourself. And listen to the people you trust.” Vanessa also emphasized, “It’s never too late. I didn’t become an entrepreneur until I was 35 years old. Go for it and don’t have any regrets.”

The panelists also had strong thoughts regarding hiring for their businesses. Shamira said, “I look for like-minded people with the same drive as myself, but not necessarily exactly like me because I want other perspectives.” Shama agreed. “Mindset is critical. Skills can be taught. In fact, I’d rather teach skills to someone with integrity.” Rossalvi reiterated that thought, “I’m trusting my dream to someone else, so I don’t put skills before personality.” Danielle expanded on that, saying, “Look for passion. Be sure someone is willing to learn. I look for people who will give their all.”

The importance of self-evaluation and assessment

“Constructive criticism helps me improve and better help others,” according to Shamira. “I continuously evaluate and define what I can do better.” Shama remarked, “Evolving is part of being in business. The world is constantly changing, you must, too.” Vanessa continued, “Self-evaluation of your time management is also important. The idea of being able to make your own schedule can be your worst enemy. You have to deliver on time.” Rossalvi noted, “At the end of the day, ask 'Did we win or lose?' Be honest—we’re not perfect. Something is wrong if no one ever tells you anything is wrong! I ask for feedback from my clients regularly and I’m open to criticism. Know your weaknesses and work on them.”

Use all available resources

“Get involved with small business organizations,” Shama recommended. “And use the resources in your community.” Shamira said, “Network with like-minded people and get involved with showcases and local business events.” Vanessa added, “It’s all about networking. The more people you meet, the more people there are talking about your business. The Berkeley professors and staff were also a great resource. They give you the fire and really want you to succeed.” Both Rossalvi and Danielle suggested outside resources such as books, podcasts for learning new aspects related to your business venture. “Get a set of earbuds and a subscription to Amazon Audible,” offered Rossalvi, while Danielle advised, “There are no excuses—the internet has answers. Find credible sources and utilize everything around you.” Michael Iris noted, “Reach out to Career Services. There are more than 65,000 Berkeley grads around the world who are doing amazing things. You can tap into their knowledge. Successful people want to give back!”

Berkeley College was instrumental

“Berkeley really taught me how to promote myself, which is very important,” Vanessa explained. Shama remarked, “The diversity of the education I got was very beneficial. Many of my professors were entrepreneurs and it was great knowing that I had the skills I needed.”

The Berkeley Alumni Entrepreneurs Showcase was a great success and even provided additional networking opportunities for the panelists, Berkeley students, and other participants (as well as some delicious offerings from D’s Cozy Kitchen). Michael Iris pointed out that the event was one of many designed to complement and enhance the coursework at Berkeley, “There’s no better way to learn about becoming a successful entrepreneur than from those who have already done it.”

The views and/or opinions in this article are those of the individuals interviewed. The academic achievements and/or employment outcomes described in this article are specific to each individual and are not a guarantee of similar results for past or current students. For up-to-date and detailed information, please visit and view our catalogs at