Fellowship recipient Joe O'Connor
“I’m still kind of baffled that they chose me,” says Joe O’Connor, a 2011 Reynolds Fellowship recipient. “I was up against many very talented people,” he continues, describing his competition for the handful of graduate fellowships given annually by the NYU Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Program in Social Entrepreneurship.
O’Connor’s modesty belies his talent. The soft-spoken West Coast transplant is a vice president at Sollega, a company he helped found in 2009 in San Francisco that manufactures racks for solar panels. Within the company’s first year, Sollega expanded operations from the Bay Area to New York City, and found a home at NYC ACRE (New York City Accelerator for a Clean and Renewable Economy), a clean-tech business incubator operated by The Polytechnic Institute of NYU in Lower Manhattan. This spring O’Connor adds the Reynolds Fellowship to his growing list of accomplishments.
The honor is impressive: O’Connor was 1 of just 6 students awarded the fellowship, which provides each candidate with $25,000 a year while studying in the 2-year-long Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Program. Participants network with like-minded classmates while participating in programs like Board Corps, which trains Reynolds Fellows, then places them on the boards of nonprofit organizations across New York City.
Connections Trump Cash
O’Connor recognizes that “having a degree paid for is a huge benefit,” but he’s most interested in the community he’ll become a part of. “Having such a strong network of people to grow from—and with—is more important. To have that world to feed off for the next 2 years and beyond…” He trails off before shaking his head and smiling.
The Reynolds Fellowship comprises only a third of the workload O’Connor will juggle over the next 2 years. He plans to hold his post at Sollega while also seeking a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering at NYU-Poly. And, indeed, the pursuits are interrelated.
“[Sollega] was growing pretty quickly, and there were a lot of manufacturing questions that were going unanswered,” says O’Connor. “We were also looking for more opportunities,” he continues, which is why he chose to attend a graduate program at such a critical juncture in Sollega’s development. At NYC ACRE, O’Connor was surrounded by NYU-Poly alumni and current students. Inspired by his colleagues, he decided to take a class at the Institute last spring. He and his company saw immediate returns in areas such as product development and system efficiencies.
Advice to Future Applicants
Buoyed by his experience at NYU-Poly, O’Connor applied for the Reynolds Fellowship and found a welcomed challenge in the application process, which required essays and a biographical sketch. Writing doesn’t come naturally to O’Connor, who, before applying, had previously enrolled in creative writing classes. “I could pass any calculus test, but writing an essay was really difficult for me,” he admits. “If you want to be an entrepreneur, you can’t just be an engineer.”
O’Connor believes his skill at communicating is what helped to impress the awards committee and ultimately earn him the Reynolds Fellowship. “Having an internal passion to do what you want in life and to be already heading towards that—Reynolds will recognize that and see that you’re on to something,” he says. “But it’s really the story that needs to be compelling and this is your chance to tell it.”
Interested applicants can find out more about the Reynolds program at http://www.nyu.edu/reynolds/index.flash.html.