Alumnae/i Feature

Simmons Alum Kelly O’Connell Champions Women and Nonbinary Entrepreneurs

The main campus building at Simmons University

“[Attending Simmons] changed my life, and that story is not unique to me. Simmons empowered me to use my voice. I was so shy, I didn’t even want to call for pizza! Today, I speak in front of thousands of people.”

Kelly O’Connell joined the Simmons University Alumnae/i Association Executive Board (AAEB) during COVID from the West coast.

“It was a great way to reconnect with my community,” says O’Connell. “My goal [on the Board] has been to engage students and alumni around the world.”

Since joining the Board, O’Connell has helped launch the Simmons Tuesday Tea Podcast, as well as a book club in southern Florida, and a beach clean-up in California. She’s also offered information sessions for recent graduates and those in transition in their careers, focused on leveraging social media for a job search, inclusive hiring, and creating a 30-second pitch with the Simmons University Career Education Center.

“As we march toward the 125th anniversary of Simmons, we have a bunch of internal goals, as a board,” says O’Connell, noting that the Alumnae/i Association is a separate entity from Simmons; a non-profit organization that works in partnership with the University, with its own mission and directives. “Simmons students aren’t just focused on building corporate careers, they’re entrepreneurs,” she says, noting that she was inspired by the Simmons Leadership Conference to create a similar event to support that entrepreneurial spirit.

On April 2, AAEB will be hosting a special Simmons campus screening of “Show Her The Money,” (7 pm, Main College Building), a documentary that delves into the gender gap in venture capital funding with a focus on empowering women entrepreneurs. The screening will be followed by a Q&A panel with the filmmakers and venture capital experts.

On November 17, 2023, the AAEB and 360 Venture Collective co-sponsored a virtual Byond Balanced entrepreneurship skills day and pitch competition that resulted in over 350 virtual attendees participating in skill-building workshops & networking opportunities. In 2024, O’Connell is taking the event on-site at the Simmons academic campus for an entrepreneurship skills event for students and alumnae/i from all women-centered universities. The event, hosted by AAEB and 360 Venture Collective, is set for Friday, September 20, 2024, from 8:30 am - 2 pm EDT.

“Any student or graduate of a women-centered university who has an idea-stage unfunded company will have the opportunity to pitch their idea,” says O’Connell. “We’ll hold the finals of the competition at the event.” The event will offer sessions focused on how building inclusive companies creates more prosperity, roundtable sessions on entrepreneurship strengths, how to get women-centered business certification (WBENC), how to create a sales pitch for your business, and business model innovation regarding who you are serving and how and what differentiates you. “The event will offer both skills and community,” says O’Connell. “The better we can support one another after Simmons, the stronger our community will be, overall.”

For her part, O’Connell feels a personal urge to support Simmons. “[Attending Simmons] changed my life, and that story is not unique to me,” she says. “Simmons empowered me to use my voice. I was so shy, I didn’t even want to call for pizza! Today, I speak in front of thousands of people.” Planning an event like this fits with her work at ON ITS AXIS and her role as a Managing Partner of 360 Venture Collective, a woman-founded and led venture firm that (according to the website) funds “pre-seed & seed stage venture scale tech-enabled companies led by historically underestimated founders building in the fin-tech, health-tech, prop-tech, and future of work sectors.” This is a concerted effort to balance the funding scale; currently, 2% of funding is given to women’s businesses, and most of these are brick and mortar.

“The fact that there hasn’t been an entrepreneurship event focused on women-centered schools blows my mind,” says O’Connell. “I want to empower people who got their degrees in nursing but today want to run a health tech company. Learning to be change-agile in our fast-paced business environment today is really important. Being able to offer education and skills development opportunities for this is a passion of mine.”

In addition, the AAEB is actively seeking committee members as part of their strategic plan. “This is an inclusive board,” O’Connell says, “you don’t need 15 years of professional experience to join. It can also build a lot of career skills that can be used in seeking intrapreneurial and entrepreneurial roles.”

While fundraising will be a part of preparation for the 125th anniversary, that isn’t the only thing. “We want to bring events, content, resources, and community to the alumni network in a way that really empowers everyone. It’s not just a fundraiser, it's about community and legacy.”

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Alisa M. Libby