ASU alum named Arizona's Young Entrepreneur of the Year

June 23, 2014

Arizona State University alumnus Jeff Kunowski, founder of LED-signage company Illumin8 Media, has been named Arizona’s 2014 Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration Arizona District Office.

Kunowski, who graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in integrative studies from ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, launched Illumin8 in 2010. The company’s portable signage platforms use LED technology to create attractive, highly visible signage products that range from informational and directional signage to revenue-generating advertising platforms. Jeff Kunowski Download Full Image

“I am honored to be the recipient of this prestigious award,” Kunowski said. “It is a great feeling to be recognized for the hard work that has gone into building this business.”

Kunowski first came up with the concept for Illumin8’s signage while driving one evening. He noticed that it was difficult to see advertising signage in the dark, and he set out to develop an innovative product to solve that problem. Using LED technology, he created illuminated signage products that are highly visible, even in the dark.

With support from ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, a startup accelerator in the university's Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development that provides funding, office space and mentorship to ASU student startups, Kunowski set about making his idea a reality. He received a $10,000 grant from the Edson initiative, which allowed him to develop a commercially viable product. After several months of development, he made his first sale, to the Phoenix Suns.

“I am grateful to Arizona State University and the Edson initiative for taking a risk on my business back when it was just a concept in 2010,” Kunowski said. “Their continued support has helped get Illumin8 where it is today.”

Illumin8 has grown considerably since that first sale. The company’s current clients include Anheuser Busch, the MGM Grand Resort and Casino, Live Nation, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Phoenix Suns, US Airways Center, Maya Day and Nightclub, and more. Most recently, Illumin8 struck a deal with CBS Corp. to provide LED promotional signage outside of the CBS Television City Research Center in Las Vegas.

In 2013, Kunowski co-founded MK Solutions Group with business partner Douglas Moss to promote Illumin8’s products to sports and entertainment venues throughout North America. In addition to Illumin8, MK Solutions Group represents Panasonic, TS Sports, goCharge and Faucet Impressions. This portfolio of companies allows MK to provide solutions ranging from static LED signage to digital LED video boards to mobile-device charging stations.

Kunowski, who was honored at a ceremony in May, has also been awarded a spot in the SBA’s 2014 Emerging Leaders initiative, an intensive training program for small companies that have the potential for quick growth and job creation. During the seven-month program, he will work with experienced mentors, attend specialized workshops and develop connections with peers, city leaders and the financial community.

"It is no surprise to me that Jeff is being honored as Arizona’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year,” said Linda Persau, a faculty member in the New College’s Integrative Studies Program. “He is outstanding among his peers in his ability to both network and multitask effectively to reach parallel goals. He has an ability to truly focus on what he wants and then put in the time to create it. Jeff is a visionary who can make things happen."

Kunowski has received numerous accolades since founding Illumin8. While at ASU, he was a recipient of the Crown Innovator Scholarship, a scholarship for student entrepreneurs that was created by Insight Enterprises founder and ASU alumnus Eric Crown. In 2012, Kunowski was named one of The Arizona Republic’s “35 Entrepreneurs Under 35,” and he is a member of Sandbox, an invitation-only global network of millennial leaders and innovators.

Each year, the U.S. Small Business Administration celebrates National Small Business Week by honoring entrepreneurs and small-business champions in each state. See the complete list of Arizona winners.

School of Social Work Outstanding Graduate on fast track for success

June 23, 2014

The spring 2014 Outstanding Graduate for the ASU School of Social Work originally intended to major in something else. “My entire family is in criminal justice,” says Samantha Hill. “I was like, ‘might was well major in criminal justice.’”

But during orientation, the Bakersfield, California, native met Laura Orr, the student and academic services manager from the School of Social Work. Orr convinced her otherwise. “I ended up switching to social work before I actually even moved into Taylor Place,” says Hill. “And it's been a wonderful ride ever since.” Samantha Hill is named Outstanding Graduate from the School of Social Work Download Full Image

That ride will continue at the University of Washington this fall, where Hill is one of two candidates selected out of hundreds for a fast track graduate program. Her goal is to go into forensic social work.

“With forensic social work, you work with individuals that have committed a criminal act,” Hill says. “And that criminal act can be anything from a misdemeanor to a felony and beyond.”

Hill served as a psychiatric social work intern at the Arizona State Hospital her last year at ASU. The facility is located a couple miles east of downtown Phoenix. It serves people who are involuntarily committed as severely mentally ill, those convicted of crimes but ruled insane, and sexual offenders who are considered threats to public safety. Hill loved the experience.

Duke Beard is not surprised. He supervised Hill at Taylor Place, the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus dorm, where Hill was a community assistant for upperclassmen from the College of Public Programs. The School of Social Work is one of four schools and 16 research centers that make up the College of Public Programs.

“The patients that she's working with, I would have run from,” says Beard. “And I work in higher ed with college freshman and I have a master's in this. She has gone to work every day, manages to throw on a smile, even on the most stressful day that she has with working with these patients.”

Beard has worked with dozens of college students over the years, but Hill stands out. Not only for her smile, which rarely leaves her face, but for her warm and caring nature.

“Sam is probably one of the most genuine, kind-hearted, caring people you will ever meet,” Beard says. "She just has a silent strength about her that really draws you in and lets you lean on her, and kind of raises you up and brings you to a better place.”

That nurturing personality served Hill well as a community assistant at Taylor Place. It also led her to serve as a chancellor for the National Residence Hall Honorary and as an executive board member of the national Residence Hall Association, a student government and programming organization for students living on campus. Hill has also volunteered at a dozen organizations in her hometown and in Phoenix, including Arizona Bridge to Independent Living, Central Arizona Services and the St. Vincent de Paul Center. She was even selected as a member of the 2013 ASU Homecoming court, one of seven ASU students to serve alongside the homecoming queen.

“She just manages to do it all, and I have no idea how she does it,” says Beard, who is the community director at Palo Verde West residential hall.

Hill is not secretive about how she does it. “My planner is my best friend,” she says. “It really is.”

It has to be. Her last semester of school, Hill was up at 6 a.m. every day, and usually didn’t get to bed until 1 or 2 in the morning. That’s because Hill took five or six classes a semester in addition to her work as a community assistant, member of student organizations, and time devoted to interning and volunteering. Taking so many classes each semester allowed her to graduate in just three years, saving a year of out-of-state tuition. And Hill managed to maintain good grades, graduating with a 3.85 GPA.

“I have decent grades,” Hill says. “They are A’s. I wish they were higher, but they’re A’s."

Her high grade point average allowed Hill to be a member of several honor societies, including the Theta Tau Chapter of the Phi Alpha Honor Society for Social Work, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and the Golden Key International Honour Society.

College wasn’t all work for Hill. She took advantage of what living in downtown Phoenix has to offer. That included catching Phoenix Suns or Arizona Diamondbacks games, watching the latest movies at a nearby theater and seeing the latest singer or group on tour.

“Lady Gaga was here a year ago and most of the building went,” Hill says. “And it was nice to be able to just walk home."

Hill looks back on her experience at ASU and is thankful her high school math teacher, ASU alumnus Tom Gundry, suggested she consider an out-of-state university. And she couldn’t be happier with a degree in social work. “We have such an umbrella sort of major, where you can go anywhere and do anything with a degree in social work,” says Hill.

The School of Social Work's Laura Orr, who convinced Hill to switch majors, is thankful to have had a student like Hill.

“Sam was amazing,” says Orr. “Enthusiastic, committed, totally involved in the university student experience and mature beyond her years. A fantastic role model!”

Paul Atkinson

assistant director, College of Public Service and Community Solutions