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The Local Entrepreneur

MSEI student believes in small business and wins Marcia Israel Outstanding Graduate Student Award

May 10, 2017
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It all added up. And Kimberly Kelly-Rolfe (MSEI ’17) really liked that.

Kelly-Rolfe, 45, who has owned and operated a local accounting and bookkeeping business for 20 years, was looking for a graduate program to help her learn how to scale up.

“I had just finished an emerging leaders program and I’d developed a model to help scale small businesses,” she said. “But I had no idea how to start.” 

She happened upon USC Marshall’s one-year Master of Science in Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the course of her research and knew immediately it was the program she was looking for.

She liked that the focus was on the practical elements of building and growing a business. “I wasn’t looking so much for academics,” she said. “I wanted a program where I could get in there and learn how to scale my business.”

And it was at USC, a campus all but in her backyard. “In high school my English teacher had us doing research in college libraries, and so I spent many hours studying in Doheny,” she says. “I feel at home on this campus.”

But actually applying for the program required a leap of faith. She had graduated from Cal State Northridge years ago.

“I told my husband, ‘they’re not going to accept me at USC; I grew up here in South L.A.! I’m a grown woman with two kids! I’m just not your typical USC graduate student.”

But in fact, as a businesswoman with an idea and a passion, Kelly-Rolfe was the perfect candidate for Marshall’s MSEI degree.

“She had already started a business and she had an idea to grow it” said Tommy Knapp, associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship and the academic director for the MSEI program. “That’s the student profile we’re always looking for.”

Small Business Nation

Small businesses, defined by the Small Business Administration (SBA) as any independent company with fewer than 500 employees, make up the vast bulk of American business. According to the SBA, 99.7 percent of firms with paid employees are small businesses, and in 2013, there were 28.8 million such businesses operating.

In 2015 Kelly-Rolfe has the opportunity to go to the White House to advocate for small businesses. One of the things she heard at that symposium was that the one pain point across every business was accounting issues.

“We returned from that meeting and pivoted to focus on small businesses,” she said. “We became a one-stop shop for the accounting, bookkeeping and payroll needs of small businesses.”

Not long afterward, she matriculated at Marshall.

She took classes on the entrepreneurial journey, venture initiation, and feasibility analysis. One of her favorite classes was “Founders’ Dilemmas,” taught by Noam Wasserman, professor of clinical entrepreneurship and author of the best-selling book of the same name. Wasserman made his academic name with this course at Harvard, where he was a professor before joining the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at USC Marshall in 2016.

She’s a Winner

But she also learned firsthand about what it means to be part of the Trojan Family Network.

“My cohort had a reputation for being one of the closest,” she said. “We just truly love and enjoy one another. I have never experienced anything like it, and I’m a former sorority girl!”

She also never imagined being chosen to receive the 2017 Marcia Israel Outstanding Graduate Student award. “I had no idea until they announced it at the Marcia Israel Awards dinner,” she said. “The vote of confidence from Lloyd Greif and his panel of entrepreneurial experts goes beyond anything I could ever have expected. I am so grateful.”

The award is given once a year to a student whose business it is to give back to their community.

The award has motivated her to continue advocating on behalf of small business nationally—and locally working to help another small business get its books in order.

“If every small business in the country employed just one more person, we’d have full employment,” she said. “I think that’s a goal worth working for.”