Tech executive Rick Nelson makes his play to generate support for Carlsen Center

Rick NelsonWhen 28 local executives hit the golf links later this year for a charity tournament, there will be a lot on the line for Sacramento State.

Rick Nelson ’94 (Communication Studies), the owner and former CEO of Direct Technology and now-Chairman of the Launch Consulting Group, is raising money before and during the Oct. 5-7 Capital Cup tournament for the University’s Dale and Katy Carlsen Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Individual participants raise money for charities of their choice ahead of the competition – interested parties may donate online – and charities supported by the winning team will share a $50,000 grand prize.

Nelson said his great admiration for fellow Sac State alum Dale Carlsen, founder of Sleep Train Mattress Centers, and Carlsen’s vision for the Center are two big reasons he wanted to lend his support.

“Young people need a place to go and find out how to lead, how to create and advance their own personal ideas,” he said. “It’s the key to fast, specific development of young talent.”

Nelson, who described himself as “not a great student in high school,” took a somewhat circuitous path to tech CEO, with Sacramento State playing a big role. Following high school, he enrolled at what was then California State University, Hayward, but left after one semester and eventually found himself in Carson City, Nev., where he decided to enlist in the Air Force.

Military service brought him to Rancho Cordova, and he enrolled at American River College while also working at UPS. He transferred to Sacramento State in 1989, where he found attentive professors who were willing to probe deep and complicated issues, as well as the support needed to learn from mistakes and continue on.

“Sac State was the target, the goal, to get to a four-year university and challenge myself in that environment,” he said. “Sac State was warm and inviting and probably the prettiest place in Sacramento. To go there and graduate from there was pretty exciting.”

He took an ownership interest in Direct Technology, which develops software solutions for public- and private-sector employers, in 2006.

Sacramento is experiencing a great deal of growth, driven in part by the migration of Bay Area residents to the capital region, Nelson said, and both new and existing businesses will look to Sacramento State for the bright, young and talented workforce that will allow the region to continue to grow. The Carlsen Center, he added, will provide students with the opportunity to learn directly from entrepreneurs and innovators with real-life experiences, not only to hear about their successes but to learn about what pitfalls to avoid.

“Sac State has the opportunity to be the leader in innovation. There’s a lot of energy in this area right now, and this is the perfect time for the Dale and Katy Carlsen Center,” Nelson said. “This Center is absolutely going to ignite a fire in people who want to start their own business and make their own path, and I’m excited to be a part of that.”

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Rene Syler reflects on success, failure, and persistence

Rene Syler knows a little something about perseverance. So it was no surprise she was invited to speak at an on-campus event celebrating the dedication and persistence of Sacramento State students.

Syler was co-host of CBS News’ The Early Show in 2006 when she announced on-air that, because of her family’s history of breast cancer, she had made the decision to undergo a double mastectomy. Later that year, she was fired from the show. She underwent the surgery just five weeks later.

In May, she returned to her alma mater to speak at the annual DEGREES Project Recognition event, which celebrated graduating students and their families.

“When they asked me to come and speak at this event and said they were looking for me to talk about persistence, I thought, ‘I wish I had all the answers,’ because there really aren’t any real answers to that except three words: Just keep going,” Syler says. “The times that I’ve wanted to quit, just when I wanted to quit I’ve been buoyed by some amazing success, and then I would have this amazing success and just when I thought I could rest on my laurels, I would have this incredible failure.”

“Just keep going” is an apt motto for Syler, who attended Sacramento State in part to be near her ailing father so she could care for him. She spent her college years juggling school and family obligations, then established herself as a top journalist before completely reinventing herself and publishing a book on motherhood.

“When I was let go from CBS, I made the decision that I was never going to let anybody upend my life like that, I was never going to let anybody hold my entire life and career in their hands again,” she says. “I was going to have more control.”

Born in Illinois, Syler moved to Sacramento as a child with her family, graduating from Del Campo High School and then attending American River College. After a brief stint in Southern California, she moved back home to attend Sacramento State.

Syler recalls the campus as “very nurturing” and one that provided a “global education” that helped broaden her outlook and prepared her for life after graduation.

“I really had to grow up and take on a lot of responsibility,” she says. “The expectation was that I would do well. Certainly there were people who shored me up and made sure that I did well, but at the end of the day it was on me to get the work done.”

Her plan after graduation was to get her master’s degree in psychology, but then she read about Liz Walker, who at the time was the highest-paid African American woman news anchor in the nation. Always a strong writer and communicator, Syler took a couple of journalism classes outside of Sacramento State and landed an internship at local TV station Channel 40. That internship eventually led to a job and, after stops in Reno, Birmingham, Ala., and Dallas, she became co-host of The Early Show in 2002.

“The degree in psychology was important but it was not just about psychology, it was about getting a degree in life,” Syler says. “I always say that the degree in psychology made me perfectly suited to go into television.”

Over the course of her career, Syler has interviewed her share of big celebrities, including Beyoncé, Prince, John McCain, Ben Affleck, and Antonio Banderas. In particular, she recalls a warm encounter with former First Lady Barbara Bush and former President George H.W. Bush at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, shortly after she had left CBS.

“I introduced myself and (Barbara) said, ‘Oh, George, don’t you remember Rene from The Early Show?’ And it was just so sweet and genuine, and that was the kind of person she was. I felt grateful to have those kinds of experiences.”

Good Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting, was published in 2007, and Syler calls it her “missive on modern motherhood, born of the fact that, this is who I was. I really was just good enough. I was just a good enough mother and somehow my kids survived.” Away from the journalism career she had spent so many years building, she now was forced to market herself, creating and cultivating her personal brand. The book’s companion website offers tips and information on a variety of topics, including career, health, and family, as well as an “Ask Rene” advice section.

Syler also has continued her television work, hosting Sweet Retreats on the Live Well Network and Exhale on Aspire, as well as appearing on programs such as The Today Show, CNN Headline News, and The View. A former track athlete, she also competes in “warrior dash” and “mud-run” events, and co-owns a women’s fitness company.

Everything she has experienced has given Syler an appreciation for taking the long view and recognizing that there will be both heartbreaking failures and tremendous successes, something she emphasized when she spoke at Sacramento State.

“It really has to be based on the course of a lifetime, and if you look at it like that, that you’re in it for the long haul, it’s all going to come out OK,” she says. “It will not be what you think it will be, but it will be OK. And you know what? In some cases, better than OK.”

Jewelry, Sacramento State are both traditions for Sharif family

The first thing that happens when you walk into Sharif Jewelers is you are offered a cup of Turkish coffee and some baklava.

“My dad showed me that’s what you do when you greet people, you welcome them for a cup of coffee to break the ice and make them feel part of your family and part of your business,” says co-owner Mahmud Sharif ’84 (Mechanical Engineering). “It’s a Middle Eastern tradition, to be really hospitable, and I carried that with me.”

Tradition is big in the Sharif family. There’s the family business, which Sharif’s grandfather started in Jerusalem in the 1930s. Sharif and his brother Hazem continued the tradition by opening their own shop in Sacramento, which today has become a chain of stores run in part by their children.

Then there is a newer tradition taking shape: Sacramento State. Mahmud Sharif came to the United States to study at the University, and his three oldest children – Naser, Laila and Ali – as well as his nephew Omar all are Hornet alumni as well. His youngest son, Mohammad, or “Moe,” is currently a student.

“Sacramento State is a great school, especially for engineering,” he says. “I recommended it to them. It’s close to home. This is the place where they grew up. And they loved it.”

Several factors contributed to the Sharif children following their father to Sacramento State, including tradition, proximity, and reputation.

“For us it was part of the legacy to follow in his footsteps,” says Ali Sharif ’16 (Marketing), who now is the company’s vice president of marketing. “Working here, it was easy to go over to Sac State and they’re known for their business program, so for us it fit right in.”

A photo of Mahmud Sharif holding his Sac State diploma, standing behind a jewelry counter.
Mahmud Sharif shows off his Sacramento State diploma. Sharif immigrated to the United States from Jerusalem to study mechanical engineering. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

As a child growing up in Jerusalem, Mahmud Sharif says being in his father and grandfather’s shop was “amazing,” and it’s where he fell in love with jewelry and the family business. After school he would help out at the store, watching and learning as his father designed jewelry, ran the store and interacted with customers.

In 1980, Mahmud moved to the United States and began his time at Sacramento State. In addition to his engineering major, he minored in art, something that would come in handy down the line when he began designing jewelry. Around the same time, he and Hazem opened Sharif Jewelers on Howe Avenue.

“Sac State was really great,” he says. “I had the best years of my life. I had a lot of friends, did a lot of activities, and I had a great time.”

Following in their father’s footsteps started early for the Sharif children. They too practically grew up inside the store and worked there throughout college. Today, alongside Ali, Nasser ’11 (Business Management) serves as operations manager, while Laila ’13 (Psychology) works as a designer. Customers who they met as kids are now bringing their children and grandchildren in to purchase engagement rings.

“We’d come in on the weekends, we’d help our dad,” Laila says. “The customers, some of them we grew up with since we were little. A lot of our jewelers and employees we’ve had for over 10 years, so they literally watched us grow. It’s been fun.”

The jewelry store, they say, provided a perfect place to practically apply the knowledge they were gaining in classrooms at Sacramento State.

“What you learned in class, you could apply in actual work,” Naser says. “Go learn about it and come after to one of the shops and apply what you learned and discuss what you learned to help grow the business.”

(Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
Ali Sharif (left) and his father, Mahmud Sharif, examine a piece of jewelry. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

Like many Sacramento State alumni, the Sharif children all stayed in their hometown – Moe plans to join the business after graduating next year – to continue the Sharif tradition started by their grandfather nearly a century ago.

“Sacramento’s just home,” Laila says. “It gave us wonderful opportunities, it’s always been good to us, and now it’s our time to give back. We can work and continue to build relationships with people and give back to the community that gave us everything to start with.”

Her father agrees.

“I really feel like Sac State formed me into who I am,” Mahmud says. “And I really like the atmosphere and the people and the diversity here in Sacramento. I want my kids who grew up here to live and excel here.”

Top photo, from left: Naser Sharif, Mohammad Sharif, Mahmud Sharif, Laila Sharif, and Ali Sharif. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)