Carley Graham Garcia said she was hired to be a disrupter.
Now, nearly five months into her new role as executive director of the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Montclair State University, that’s exactly what she’s doing.
“This job is everything I had visualized and better,” she said as she spoke recently at Joyist, an organic functional foods café in Montclair that hosts bimonthly women’s networking meetings focused on and tailored for small business growth.
Garcia, a former longtime Google executive, said she’s happy to be shaking things up in her own community.
“Going anywhere new after a long time is hard, but it reminds you that, like any entrepreneur, on occasion you have to blow yourself up and start over,” she said. “And you have the capacity and ability to do that and be successful.”
Having done this more than once in her career, Garcia is well-versed in the practice.
After moving from the Boston area to Washington, D.C., to earn her degree in English from Georgetown University, Garcia worked for five years as the director of advertising sales at Atlantic Media and its National Journal Group subsidiary.
“It was really fun to work in the business of the town, which was insider politics,” she said.
Then, a publisher and mentor of Garcia’s told her she regretted never earning her Master of Business Administration.
“She said to me, ‘You’ve got to do it or you’ll get stuck here,’” Garcia said. “That really resonated with my 26-year-old self, so I applied to New York University, which was the best part-time program I felt you could get into.”
Garcia subsequently moved to New York and began working at a young but fast-growing company called Google while earning her MBA from the Stern School of Business.
“I started at Google in 2007 within a startup at the company that failed 18 months in,” she said. “We had this thing called Google Print Ads, Audio Ads and Television Ads, and it was all about not blowing up those industries — which didn’t work.”
But Garcia was not discouraged.
“That was just the way of the company,” she said. “We were trying a bunch of new things and it was an exciting time.”
While Garcia remained at Google, she decided to move to Montclair with her husband.
“But I still felt a draw back toward D.C., as I had always loved politics and policy and working on issues and the brand positioning that goes along with advocacy,” she said.
Garcia therefore began working as a senior sales representative in elections and issue advocacy, generating revenue from Google’s advertising platforms that help political candidates and issue advocacy organizations influence target audiences and measure results.
“In 2008, I was on the team that was the first at Google to receive the most significant fundraising dollars on the web, as two very important people — (presidential candidates) Sen. (Barack) Obama and Sen. (John) McCain — were using our platform to raise money,” she said.
Garcia enjoyed the work and began building a very policy-focused career at Google.
“Being an MBA-type who sold ads in a space with heady policy experts seemed totally out of my league at first, but it was great to cut my teeth and learn,” she said. “I found it very powerful to then be able to speak both languages, as policy people rarely know anything about business, and vice versa.”
Yet, as she worked on issues such as data privacy and copyright protections, and pursued her master’s in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Garcia said the work began to change.
“We were now this big company that was doing more defending than building, and I was always on the front lines,” she said. “I also was always traveling to Washington, D.C., and Google headquarters in California, and I was never in the place I had chosen for my home.”
That’s when Garcia said she began to formulate a plan.
“About three years ago, I very intentionally took a New York-specific job at Google that also had me covering New Jersey with the intent of building my next thing,” she said. “I had to get off the ship — it was a great ship, but I needed to take a different cruise.”
As Garcia worked as head of external affairs for Google’s New York City campus, she said she always was on the lookout for the next opportunity.
“It’s hard to leave Google, especially having been there a long time,” she said. “I had given birth to both my son (now age 6) and daughter (now age 2) while there and my husband also started working there, so it certainly became harder and harder to leave.
“But I stuck to my guns — it was time to change course.”
Garcia would get her chance after facilitating a panel on workforce development at the Propelify Innovation Festival in Hoboken and connecting with leaders at the Feliciano Center in 2018.
Founded in January 2013 as part of the Feliciano School of Business at MSU, the center now offers a concentration, a minor and a certificate in entrepreneurship as well as a certificate in innovation design.
It also facilitates a co-op internship program, which sends students out to New Jersey startups and entrepreneurial companies; prize-winning pitch contests for student- and alumni-led startups; Women Entrepreneurship Week, a global movement started by the center in 2014 now held at more than 240 schools in 32 countries and 49 states, plus D.C.; and the nearly 5,600-member Montclair Entrepreneurs Meetup group.
Garcia said she was invited to tour the center’s MIX Lab, a maker space for the next generation of entrepreneurs, and present at Women Entrepreneurship Week.
Her visit inspired her to make a list of what it was she wanted her life to look like.
“It wasn’t just about what I wanted to do next, but also, how did I want to feel?” Garcia said. “I wanted to build; I wanted to have more purpose; I wanted off that train and into my community; and I wanted to continue working at the intersection of business and policy.
“It all stemmed from the feeling that I could still do and be more.”
At the end of 2018, Garcia said she received notice that Dennis Bone, the former executive director of the Feliciano Center, was retiring.
“And I thought, that’s too bad, he’s really great — but, also, I wanted that job,” she said.
Nearly 26 interviews and six months later, Garcia was offered the role.
“I had mentors say I was too young to enter into academia, and even my husband questioned my wanting to jump industries again,” she said. “But I built my own case and demonstrated how strongly I felt about this.”
First, the job would be just a few miles from her home in Montclair and her children’s schools.
Second, as the second-largest university in the state behind Rutgers, the 21,000-student population is incredibly diverse.
And, third, as a state university, MSU is very connected to the political system in New Jersey.
“The mission of the university is very similar to why we decided to live in this community,” Garcia said. “So, when it came to building diverse startups, this would be a great place to do that.”
Still, Garcia said, she, too, sometimes questioned if she was ready.
“Then I thought, if I don’t say yes to this, I’ll be disappointed tomorrow,” she said. “That’s when I knew.”
Garcia said Bone and his team did an incredible job building the nuts and bolts of what an entrepreneurship center could do on a major state university campus.
“Our first and foremost focus is workforce development,” she said. “We want to support student startups, but, as we all know, the likelihood of a student startup being a unicorn is still slim, so what we really look to teach students is how to be nimble and resilient and how to fail quickly to build again.”
The curriculum and the building blocks of what students need in order to build businesses already were there, Garcia said.
“So, I started by putting forth ideas on how to activate our physical space, to make it look more like a welcoming, collaborative coworking environment and to change how we bring people in, including corporate support and engagement,” she said.
The goal, she added, is to double the center’s engagement with its surrounding communities by hosting weekly events.
“We also want our guest speakers and the folks who engage with our center to look more like our student body,” Garcia said.
Garcia also recently brought on the center’s first entrepreneur-in-residence, Karen Cahn, founder and CEO of iFundWomen, a New York City-based crowdfunding and coaching consultancy that provides early-stage entrepreneurs with access to capital and community partnerships.
“We’ve invited her to sit and work with us while mentoring our students, teaching them how to fundraise and present to investors,” Garcia said.
Garcia also has plans to expand MSU’s signature Women Entrepreneurship Week event into a two-day conference featuring more tactical business training, potentially open the school’s pitch competitions to nonstudents and partner with the Propelify Innovation Festival in Hoboken to power its women’s track.
“These could all be good ways to create connectivity between our entrepreneurial community here and what we’re doing on campus,” she said.
Lastly, Garcia cited her experience as a “dinosaur” at Google with her desire to flip the campus’ career services model on its head.
“The average millennial is not going to go work for Prudential for the next 35 years because that’s just not the way it works anymore,” she said. “Figuring out how we can get startups at any stage who need to hire to come to our campus and recruit will allow students to use such opportunities as launching pads to learn and cut their teeth before moving on to their next jobs.
“That’s what I’m really excited about.”