Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Alumni from UNC System institutions make big marks

By Taylor Wanbaugh and David Mildenberg

It’s been 230 years since UNC Chapel Hill was established in 1789. Since then, more than 1 million students have earned degrees from the UNC System, which now comprises 17 campuses. In 2016-17, the system awarded nearly 55,000 degrees. Still, North Carolina ranks 26th among U.S. states in percentage of the population with a four-year degree. While each university sports legions of dynamic alumni, selecting one graduate from each campus gives a snapshot of the extraordinary range of callings made possible, at least partly, by education at the state’s acclaimed public universities.


Appalachian State University

Steven Dubner
author, Freakonomics series
New York City
The 1984 graduate’s writing career went into overdrive in 2005 when he co-authored Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, with Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago business professor. The book and its SuperFreakonomics sequel sold more than 5 million copies and created a franchise that includes a consulting group, a blog and a podcast that boasts more than 12 million monthly downloads.

After leaving Boone, Dubner earned a master’s degree in fine arts at Columbia University. He was writing a profile on Levitt for The New York Times when the duo conceived their book.

East Carolina University

David Fussell Jr.
president, Duplin Winery
Rose Hill
Four years after earning a bachelor’s in economics in 1990, Fussell joined the business formed by his grandfather, dad and uncle. At the time, Duplin Winery had one employee and sold about 4,400 cases. Recording its first profitable year in 1995, the South’s largest winery now has annual production of more than 500,000 cases. More than 80% of the grapes used at the winery are grown in North Carolina. Both of Fussell’s parents earned education degrees at East Carolina.

Elizabeth City State University

Stephen Rohrer
head of data science, TIAA
A graduate of the system’s second-smallest university, Rohrer leads a team that focuses on using artificial intelligence and machine learning at TIAA. He joined the financial-services giant in 2014 after earning a master’s degree in advanced analytics at N.C. State University. In 2009, he received a bachelor’s in business administration from ECSU, then worked in northeast N.C. until moving to the Charlotte area three years later.

Fayetteville State University

[media-credit name=”Mitch Colvin” align=”alignleft” width=”200″]Mitch Colvin[/media-credit]

Mitch Colvin
mayor, Fayetteville; owner, Colvin Funeral Home
Colvin took over leadership of his family’s mortuary business in 1995 at age 21. After earning an associate degree in funeral service at a Virginia school, he received a bachelor’s in sociology at Fayetteville State University. He was elected to the Fayetteville City Council in 2013, then won the mayor’s race in 2017 by nearly 19 percentage points. As chair of the city’s baseball committee, he led negotiations for the new downtown baseball stadium that officials expect to revitalize the center city.

North Carolina A&T State University

Janice Bryant Howroyd
founder and CEO, The ACT-1 Group
Los Angeles
One of 11 children in a Tarboro family, Howroyd says she is the first African-American woman to build and own a business with billings of more than $1 billion. Act-1 Group offers various staffing, outsourcing and other workforce management services. She studied humanities and English at N.C. A&T, then moved to California with a mere $900 in her pocket to work with her brother-in-law Tom Noonan, who created Billboard magazine’s weekly ranking of 100 hit singles. She founded her business in 1978, and it now operates in more than a dozen nations. In 2004, she pledged $10 million of her life insurance policy to the university.

North Carolina Central University

Willie Gary
attorney, Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson & Gary, PLLC
Stuart, Fla.
Also in a family of 11 children, Gary earned a bachelor’s in business administration from Shaw University in Raleigh before entering N.C. Central University, where he received a law degree in 1974. He then started a law firm in Martin County, Fla., and has become one of the nation’s most famous plaintiffs’ attorneys, helping win dozens of multimillion-dollar verdicts on behalf of clients who sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Anheuser-Busch Inc. and other large companies. In March, he filed a $1 billion lawsuit on behalf of a landscaper against her employer and Monsanto Co., alleging improper marketing of the Roundup herbicide.

Gary’s law firm, Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson & Gary, has 37 lawyers and a professional staff of more than 100, according to the company’s website. Gary often travels in a 32-passenger Boeing 737 called the Wings of Justice II.

North Carolina State University

[media-credit name=”Jeff Williams/Apple” align=”alignleft” width=”200″]Jeff Williams[/media-credit]

Jeff Williams
chief operating officer, Apple Inc.
Cupertino, Calif.
When Apple CEO Tim Cook promoted Williams to Apple’s No. 2 post, Cook called him “hands-down the best operations executive I’ve ever worked with.” After 13 years at IBM, he joined Apple in 1998, helped launch the iPhone, and led the iPod and Apple Watch operations. He earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at N.C. State University, then an MBA from Duke University. A fitness fanatic, Williams tries hard to remain out of the limelight: He wasn’t mentioned in Walter Isaacson’s best-selling 2011 biography of Steve Jobs.

In a rare public appearance at Elon College in February, Williams said, “Too many people who are very successful, I find, they start believing a narrative about things that they wouldn’t ordinarily accept. I call it ‘breathing their own exhaust,’ and I don’t have a lot of tolerance for that.”

UNC Asheville

Anne-Marie Baiynd
financial analyst and author
Baiynd is a widely quoted stock-market analyst who earned a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from UNC Asheville. She started her career in medical research and later employee recruiting, then switched to day trading after attending a public seminar in 2005. Since then, she has published books on investing and created an online trading site to teach subscribers about technical stock analysis. Baiynd speaks frequently at traders’ conferences and has more than 25,000 Twitter followers. From her website,, Baiynd notes, “The trading world is a minefield littered with people lured by the success potential and hopes for the comfortable life that never made it because they never learned the rhythm of the markets.”

UNC Chapel Hill

[media-credit name=”Chuck Robbins/Cisco Systems” align=”alignleft” width=”200″]Chuck Robbins[/media-credit]

Chuck Robbins
chairman and chief executive officer, Cisco Systems Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
The top exec overseeing more than 37,000 employees at the California-based networking giant is a North Carolinian through and through. He went to Rocky Mount High School, then earned a bachelor’s degree in math at Chapel Hill. His first job out of college was as an applications developer for NCNB, a predecessor of today’s Bank of America. He moved into the tech industry with jobs at Bay Networks and Ascend Communications before joining Cisco in 1997. He was promoted to CEO of Cisco in 2015, succeeding Duke University graduate John Chambers. He was elected chairman of the board on Dec. 11, 2017. Cisco had revenue of $49 billion in the 2018 fiscal year and had a market cap of $250 billion in mid-April.

UNC Charlotte

[media-credit name=”Karen Popp/Sidley Austin LLP” align=”alignleft” width=”200″]Karen Popp[/media-credit]

Karen Popp
partner, Sidley Austin LLP
New York
Popp was a high achiever as an undergrad at UNC Charlotte, graduating cum laude in 1980 before attending Oxford University in England to study law on a Rotary International Scholarship. She also graduated cum laude from the UNC School of Law. Popp now serves as the global co-leader of Sidley Austin’s White Collar: Government Litigation and Investigations group. Before joining Sidley Austin, the nation’s sixth-largest law firm, Popp was associate White House counsel during the Clinton administration. Accolades for her work include a listing in the Top 250 Women in Litigation publication and as one of the “Top 100 Women in Investigations” in the world by Global Investigation Review. Popp, the second alumna to chair UNC Charlotte’s Board of Trustees, provided funding for the school’s Popp Martin Student Union.

UNC Greensboro

Norman Anderson
former chief executive officer, American Psychological Association
Tallahassee, Fla.
Anderson is a native of the Gate City, where his parents were co-pastors of United Institutional Baptist Church. After attending N.C. Central University, he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from UNCG. In 1988, he became the first African-American elected president of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. As the first director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, he helped grow the program’s budget from $2 million to $19 million and organized funding of more than $90 million in research initiatives. From 2003-16, Anderson was CEO of the American Psychological Association, the nation’s largest organization for scientific and professional psychology. He has published dozens of scientific articles and books, serving as editor-in-chief of American Psychologist for more than 12 years. Anderson is now assistant vice president for research and academic affairs and a professor of social work and nursing at Florida State University.

UNC Pembroke

Kellie Blue
county manager, Robeson County
Blue, a lifelong resident of Pembroke, has had a storied career in the town. After graduating from UNC Pembroke with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in accounting, she worked as an internal auditor for Southern National Bank, now BB&T. She continued her career at the Lumber River Council of Governments as a fiscal specialist and program evaluator before joining Robeson County, where she now serves as county manager. She has received the Governmental Finance Officers Association’s Excellence in Financial Reporting award for the past 10 fiscal years and the Outstanding Alumnus Award from UNCP. Blue, former chair of UNCP’s Board of Trustees, was appointed to the UNC System Board of Governors in 2017. She serves as the vice chair for the Committee on Personnel and Tenure and as a member of the Committee on Historically Minority-Serving Institutions. Her term ends in 2021.

UNC Wilmington

Caroline Reda
consultant, power-generation industry
Wrightsville Beach
Reda got her start with GE as an intern during her junior year at UNC Wilmington. After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science, she climbed the ladder at the multinational energy conglomerate, previously serving as vice president of the North America Region for Power Services, a $15 billion organization that has 25,000 employees in more than 150 countries. Prior to that, she served as president and CEO of Wilmington-based GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy after working for GE for 17 years in a variety of roles, including chief operating officer for Global Nuclear Fuel Americas. She now serves as a consultant for the power-generation industry.

Reda earned a bachelor’s in computer programming from UNC Wilmington, which recognized her as Distinguished Alumna of the Year in 2016. She also has a master’s in industrial engineering from N.C. State University.

UNC School of the Arts

Paul Tazewell
costume designer
New York City
World-renowned designer Paul Tazewell is responsible for some of the costume magic gracing the stages of modern Broadway shows. Tazewell nabbed a Tony Award in 2016 for best costume design for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton and an Emmy for his work on The Wiz Live!, which aired on NBC in 2015. He’s received six Tony Award nominations for costume design, among other industry honors.

Before his big break on Broadway, Tazewell earned a bachelor’s of fine arts in Winston-Salem and a master’s degree from New York University. He has worked as a designer on the Broadway productions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Memphis, In the Heights, The Color Purple and Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, and designed costumes for the Bolshoi Ballet, Metropolitan Opera and Goodman Theatre.

Western Carolina University

[media-credit name=”Danita Johnson/” align=”alignleft” width=”200″]Danita Johnson[/media-credit]

Danita Johnson
president and COO, Los Angeles Sparks
Los Angeles
Johnson took the reins of the Los Angeles Sparks earlier this year as president and chief operating officer of the WNBA team, which is owned by an investor group led by NBA great Magic Johnson. She previously served as the Sparks’ senior vice president and as director of business operations for the Los Angeles Clippers, another NBA team.

During her tenure with the Sparks, Johnson helped launch the annual #WeAreWomen campaign and has boosted ticket sales by 50%. The Sparks are one of two active WNBA teams to have won back-to-back titles, and the team qualified for the playoffs in 18 of its 22 seasons. Johnson, who earned a bachelor’s in sports management from WCU, has 14 years of experience in various pro basketball jobs, including stints with the Phoenix Suns, Tulsa Shock and Washington Mystics.

Winston-Salem State University

[media-credit name=”Stephen Smith/Joe Faraoni-ESPN Images” align=”alignleft” width=”200″]Stephen Smith[/media-credit]

Stephen A. Smith
sports broadcaster, ESPN
Known for his big voice and nonstop opinions, often delivered at a high decibel level, Smith is a ubiquitous media presence. In addition to his morning sports-debate show First Take on the ESPN television network, he hosts The Stephen A. Smith Show on ESPN Radio and is a featured columnist for, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In April, The New York Post and other outlets reported that Smith was in line to sign a $10 million annual contract with ESPN, a record for an on-air personality at the network.

The New York native attended Winston-Salem State University on a basketball scholarship, earning a degree in mass communications. As a student, he had a part-time job at the Winston-Salem Journal. His first full-time job was at the Greensboro News & Record, where he says his initial annual salary was $15,000.



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