Tech and business pioneers

issue 01 | winter 2024
Keyboard and mouse

Diran Hafiz ’04 and Crina Vasiliu ’06 met at Denison as international students.

Hafiz came from Bangladesh, while Vasiliu is a Romanian who grew up under communist rule. Both are unwavering advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

In 2020, they launched CareerRecipe, a nonprofit consultancy in Chicago that helps new-to-career job seekers, especially at-risk minorities, find employment.

In three years, Hafiz and Vasiliu have helped place more than 225 applicants.

The couple runs CareerRecipe while continuing to work in the private sector. Hafiz is a senior vice president of analytics and decision sciences at Publicis Collective, and Vasiliu is a director of workplace planning at Morningstar, a financial services firm.

They each bring nearly two decades of experience and networking from the technology and financial sectors. Their services include career consulting, resume building, interview prep work, and optimizing LinkedIn profiles.

“Our pro bono work is something we do because we’re passionate about it and because we want to give back,” Hafiz said. “It’s been super fulfilling, and I can connect the dots with experiences that I went through at Denison.”

A broken ankle and torn tendons couldn’t slow Alison Alexander ’07 when she arrived at Denison in 2003.

Determined to be part of a team, she made her mark sitting down — rowing competitively for the Big Red crew.

Finding a way to make a difference drives Alexander, who earned degrees in communications and studio art. She’s carved out a career in organizational change management and found her place in sustainable business transformation.

Alexander is the vice president of program, partnership, and community operations for the Unreasonable Group, an accelerator and investment house building a unique “ecosystem for good” that is nurturing entrepreneurs tackling some of the world’s most significant challenges.

“I must work for a place that’s impact-driven and is trying to make the world better for the next generation,” Alexander said. “At Unreasonable, we are repurposing capitalism in an intentional way.”

Unreasonable partners with institutions and multinationals such as Barclays, Accenture, Pearson, Nike, and the U.S. State Department.

Alexander is a major proponent of finding a work-life balance, to support employees and help them understand it’s OK to ask for help. She believes changing our way of thinking about employee engagement can boost productivity and raise retention.

It’s part of being what she calls a “human-centered strategist.”

“I would never be happy in an organization where purpose-driven work was not part of my day-to-day experience,” she said.

When time permits, Alexander retreats into nature and gets out on the water whenever possible.

Alex Green ’06 squeezed every drop of opportunity from his four years at Denison.

He worked as a deejay at WDUB, founded a sound production company, served with the campus governance association, and organized several large-scale entertainment events, including the university’s first foam and laser rave.

He was even a Swasey Chapel bell ringer.

“I gained a lot of confidence in working and collaborating with others,” Green said. “Denison provided an environment that allowed me to come into my own.”

His breadth of experiences prepared him for a career with Apple, where he’s thrived for the past 12 years. Green, who majored in media technology and arts, has worked his way up to senior leadership in retail technology product management.

During his time at Apple, he’s traveled the world supporting the company.

Green draws a straight line between his successful career and his time on The Hill. While he was an energetic and enterprising student, he credits Denison’s mentors for helping him plot his future.

Despite all his hard work across campus, Green was undecided on a career path as a senior. He said Ryan Brechbill, now director of employer and alumni relations at the Knowlton Center for Career Exploration, recommended a consulting job with Deloitte.

Green spent four years learning the business side of technology. He joined Apple after getting his MBA at Cornell University.

“That meeting with Ryan helped change my life,” Green recalled. “I wasn’t even thinking about consulting, but he saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself.”

Sameer Baral ’08 has never been afraid of the road less traveled. It’s been his preferred route to success since leaving Nepal as a teenager to attend Denison.

A student with a love of astronomy, he majored in physics before switching to mathematics and geoscience. The young man from Southeast Asia with an affinity for acoustic guitar became the only international student during his time on The Hill to perform in the bluegrass ensemble.

“People often underestimate themselves,” Baral said. “We all have the capacity for change and the ability to make career pivots. I like to say not knowing is a tremendous opportunity.”

Since graduation, Baral has worked in the energy, tech, and data fields. He’s been a geologist, technologist, and financial software expert. He was recently promoted to a director of implementation-client success at Fiserv.

Baral and his wife often talk about their different career paths. She’s always worked in accounting, while Baral has hopscotched from one field to another.

He said the one constant on his journey has been an ability to build relationships.

“I’ve always been fanatical about solving clients’ issues,” Baral said. “The client’s experience matters more than anything else.”

He honed his personal touch while learning English on the fly. He developed an ear for it listening to classic rock as a kid — The Eagles, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and Lynyrd Skynyrd were his unconventional language tutors.

Although applied sciences was his emphasis at Denison, a course in public speaking also did wonders for his confidence.

“I’ve had an unorthodox career, but I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “The rules of engagement have changed at different jobs, but the fundamental elements have not. It comes back to knowing how to deal with people.”

Eleni Karahalios ’14 admits she didn’t fully appreciate one of the most valuable lessons she learned at Denison until she entered the workforce.

Karahalios, who majored in economics, recalls the emphasis some professors placed on class participation. A decade later, she still remembers an English class that featured the works of author Jane Austen and how her instructor graded heavily on what students brought to discussions about the material.

“I tell this to people all the time when they ask me about how Denison prepared me for my career,” said Karahalios, an executive recruiter for venture-backed companies. “When I got to my first job out of college, I understood the importance of adding value and fresh ideas to conversations. Denison helps you find your voice.”

Karahalios has worked closely with startups. There’s lots of meetings and brainstorming sessions — environments that require innovative solutions.

She also spent two months in 2023 partnering with NASA on a climate tech incubator to commercialize advanced gas and emission monitoring products.

“I’d like to transition to executive searches for climate change technology,” she said. “I’m still using the lessons I learned at Denison as my career evolves.”

Denison remains part of Karahalios’ orbit. She’s hosted organizational group chats with students and is impressed by the university’s evolution in career services, internships, and innovation.

In 2023, U.S. News & World Report ranked Denison No. 6 in innovation, and the Princeton Review ranked it third for career services among all U.S. colleges and universities.

“I talked with Denison students while I was at GoPro and Levi Strauss, and I was blown away by how sophisticated and nuanced many of the questions were,” Karahalios said. “It says a lot about what the students are learning.”

Sardor Taylakov ’19 wasn’t on The Hill long, but he’s not short on memories or gratitude.

“They have amazing professors at Denison who can engage you in the subject matter,” said Taylakov, who earned a degree in computer science. “I also was impressed how they built a community to bring the computer science majors together.”

Taylakov began his college studies at the University of Tashkent in his native Uzbekistan. He transferred to Denison and completed his degree in two years through hard work and the help of his advisor, computer science professor Matt Kretchmar.

“He’s very motivated and very kind,” Kretchmar said. “It doesn’t surprise me that Sardor has achieved post-graduate success.”

Taylakov is a senior software engineer at Navan, an online travel management and corporate card company, where he’s worked since graduation.

Leaving home at a young age and moving halfway around the world can be a stressful experience. Taylakov believes Denison and his host family set him up for success.

“It’s a very welcoming environment for international students,” said Taylakov, who went home to Uzbekistan in the fall of 2023 for just the second time. “Denison is a place where you can learn a lot of things about yourself and the world.”

Steve Holden ’07 worked for a tech company whose brand is so universal its very name became a verb. Just Google it.

When you reach that level of success, the pressure to stay on top creates daunting challenges and mantras.

“One of the longstanding guiding principles at Google is that ‘great just isn’t good enough,’” said Holden, who finished his run at the tech giant as a business development manager.

“Throughout my 15 years at the company, this was a constant reminder of the importance to be humble and to stay hungry by setting ambitious goals — even if it was unlikely that you would reach them all.”

Holden said working at Google required him to nimbly adapt to changing circumstances, learn quickly from others, and thrive in ambiguity.

“Those are exactly the kinds of skills I was able to sharpen while at Denison,” he said. “Applying those skills during my four years at Denison prepared me well for a career in sales, advertising, and business development.”

He continues to draw on his Denison training in his new job as a team leader at, a platform that helps software companies sell their products more effectively by leveraging cloud marketplaces operated by companies such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.

William Yandell ’92 loves action and adventure. He treats life as a contact sport.

He snowboards, surfs, and paddles. As a marketing strategist, Yandell spent 12 years at Red Bull, the energy drink giant with connections to an array of sports and athletes. He also worked for Clif Bar & Company, known for its energy bars.

“I’ve always loved action sports and had an opportunity to be around them in my career,” Yandell said.

His spirit of adventure took him on a different route in 2022. He joined a startup company specializing in growing fruit in indoor vertical farms.

Oishii has become the world’s largest indoor strawberry farm, striving to change the produce industry and raise the standards of fresh fruit in America. The New Jersey-based company was founded in 2017, about a year after Yandell became a vegan.

“I had no idea about vertical farming at the time,” said Yandell, the senior director of sales and field marketing at Oishii. “But I loved the story behind the company and the technology they were using.”

Yandell, a Long Island, New York, native, said Denison taught him to open his mind to new ideas. That philosophy meshed perfectly with Oishii’s mission statement.

Dongbin Alistaire Suh ’20 usually knows the first question he’ll be asked once someone discovers he works for TikTok.

“They want to know how the algorithm works,” he said. “I tell them my team doesn’t handle that.”

Suh can’t tell you how to become the next great influencer, but his origin story from foot soldier to software engineer is compelling.

In between his sophomore and junior years, he served as a sergeant in the South Korean army. Among his duties were leading a platoon of six men in a reconnaissance mission before the South Korean president visited military headquarters. Suh also volunteered for the emergency force, which can be deployed at any moment in case of a national crisis.

“Being in the army taught me discipline and leadership,” Suh said.

He chose Denison over other American college options because of class sizes and the reputation of the computer science department. He interned and did freelance work while on The Hill, even developing a food-ordering app that was tested by the university, he said.

He learned English by listening to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Queen, and by watching Friends and Bewitched. But it was at Denison where he was taught “good writing skills,” he said, that he carried with him into his position at TikTok.

“It’s very important to convey your thoughts clearly when making presentations,” Suh said. “I learned how to organize my thoughts and provide context in my presentations.”

Published December 2023
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