President Bendapudi talks innovation and education at Penn State Lehigh Valley

President Bendapudi chats with several students in a room.

Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi, right, discusses entrepreneurship with students during her visit to Penn State Lehigh Valley.

Credit: Dan Z. Johnson

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — The evening was set to focus on entrepreneurship and the future of education — but Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi’s energy and charisma definitely doubled as the takeaway from the Penn State Lehigh Valley LaunchBox Ladies Ambassador Circle event on Nov. 16. It was the second time the new president visited the Lehigh Valley campus but the first opportunity most in the audience had to hear her speak.

“She was so inspiring,” said Student Government Association President Kriday Sharma. “She clearly cares most about student success and will work relentlessly to innovate and equip us beyond just our major.”

The president met first with students, regaling the group with lessons learned in her own personal journey — from growing up in India with no running water to becoming Penn State's first female president.

“I was taking notes for a student assignment, but was so enchanted by her presentation, I actually forgot to write at times,” said Surya Sayee Subramanian, an international student who will graduate in December.

“She made everyone feel that with hard work, they could also reach such extraordinary goals,” said Sharma.

Bendapudi also articulated her focus for the University — starting with her “ABCs for Student Success,” which include: Academic Achievement, Belonging, and Containing Costs.

As the only land-grant university in the state, Bendapudi made a point to explain the concept to the students, going back to Abraham Lincoln’s intent to provide access to education. She also shared how the University is meeting its land-grant mission in a 21st-century context. 

“I’ve worked for a number of universities,” said Bendapudi, “but Penn State is truly special. Other universities have some satellites — but 95% of all Pennsylvania residents live within 30 miles of one of our campuses. And at every single Penn State campus, you can get a four-year degree — every one. That means we have the ability to impact so many — because education is everything.”

Bendapudi also challenged students to always check the facts. “Everyone wants to tell you things, but we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t tell you to verify what people say — even my statements.”

Bendapdui shared details around the disparity in state funding for Penn State and urged both students and the greater audience to show their support for matching the state's investment in Penn State to that of other public universities through “For every dollar Penn State receives in funding, Pitt, PASSHE, and Temple get more — some much more,” she said. “We should have the same funding — we can reach so many and do so much more.”

After meeting with the students, the evening’s activities moved to the Nittany Lion Cafe in the campus’ new $16 million expansion — recently completed under Chancellor Tina Q. Richardson’s leadership. An invitation-only audience heard much more around education and innovation from Bendapudi, Richardson and Sharma, as well as LaunchBox Ladies Chairwoman Catherine Bailey and newly appointed Lehigh Valley LaunchBox Director Jill Crane, before turning to a “fireside chat” between the president and chancellor.

“Reports are showing that as many as 70% of GenZ’ers want to become entrepreneurs,” said Richardson. “They (GenZ) have more than $143 billion in buying power and the motivation to be the boss. Penn State has the statewide network of startup resources to give them the tools.”

Bendapudi spoke to the region’s massive transformation from mostly manufacturing to one of the most diverse economic portfolios in the state. “The entire region has revitalized itself only through entrepreneurship,” Bendapudi said. “Entrepreneurs don’t just react. They are proactive and take calculated risks. In higher education, we try to bring that out.”

Richardson focused again on the perspective of current (Gen Z) students: “They don’t want to just step into the existing job opportunities that are out there. They are motivated individuals who want to solve problems. They want to run things.”

Crane continued on this thought: “We at Launchbox are specifically looking to see business ideas from our students and greater community of would-be entrepreneurs flourish on every level, whether they are inventing a new product or developing a scalable product line that can be commercialized in the mass market. Crane knows the process well as a longtime product development expert with distinctions that include "Activity Toy Maker of the Year" from Crayola in her own personal portfolio.

“Our LaunchBox network across the commonwealth has supported more than 5,000 entrepreneurs, helping them launch more than 200 new companies and create 300 new jobs,” said Crane. “More than 500 student internships were also introduced through these initiatives.”

The evening closed with a member of the audience praising the president for such an impactful and genuine presentation, and many sidebar conversations echoed that sentiment on the way out.

“Dr. Bendapudi is such a great asset to the University — but also to the Penn State community as a whole,” said Shane McGee, chair of the Penn State Lehigh Valley Advisory Board. “The energy she has for the alumni base and Commonwealth Campuses is incredible. I’ve had the opportunity to see her speak several times and it’s always compelling — but more so, she brings an incredible level of excitement — you want to become involved.”