When Alex Nugent '03 approached the National Science Foundation with an idea for a brain development technology, he was told "We don't fund science projects." People laughed in his face, he said.
Today, Nugent is the founder of Knowm Inc., a company that pioneers the commercial availability of highly advanced computing technology.
Nugent and two other Whitman College alumni shared their stories of failure and defeat - and ultimately, success - at a panel hosted by the Student Engagement Center on Feb. 14, 2019. The event was put on to encourage students to think about how their decisions at Whitman will influence their futures, but each speaker emphasized that the path to a successful and fulfilling career is anything but linear.
Lisa Curtis '10, who majored in environmental studies, politics, is the founder of Kuli-Kuli, an Oakland-based food brand whose products support family farmers and women's cooperatives in West Africa. After graduating from Whitman with a degree in politics and environmental studies, Curtis joined the Peace Corps and began a daunting journey toward entrepreneurship.
"I spent three years after the Peace Corps working another full-time job and hustling nights and weekends to get Kuli Kuli off the ground, until the business could support me. It's not always as easy as people make it out to be," Curtis said.
For Nugent and alumna Ashley Trout '03, coming to Whitman College opened up career paths that were never on their agenda. Trout studied anthropology and film and media studies during her time at Whitman, and never expected to end up in the wine industry.
"I started in a winery a week after I moved out here freshman year," said Trout, who studied anthropology and film and rhetoric. "I'm from Washington, D.C., originally and I didn't think jobs like this really existed. Generally I knew they kind of existed but like, who really does that anyways?"
Nugent studied physics at Whitman, and stumbled upon his passion for brain technology during a study break.
"What I'm doing right now happened at the Whitman library," he said. "I was studying for a quantum physics test and was really fed up with it, and I went on a random walk. On the third floor of the library I found a book called "In the Image of the Brain" by Jim Jubak, which talked about a new type of computer chip that worked like a brain, and I got obsessed with it."
The panel wrapped up the talk by stating the importance of remaining curious and open-minded.
"Trying and experiencing as many things as possible is the best thing for your future," Curtis said.
Trout echoed the sentiment, also adding that it's important to stay goal-oriented, frequently checking to see if what you're doing is consistent with your goals and values.
Events like the alumni panel are opportunities for current students to connect with alumni and ask questions and gather ideas about life after Whitman. See more information about upcoming events.