Fresh off completing the Executive MBA program at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, Cole Wallace EMBA ’19 was poised to start his own entrepreneurial venture. Cole’s goal was to leverage his two decades worth of experience in the hospitality industry, and the skills and knowledge he gained by earning his Executive MBA to start a staffing company for hotels and restaurants.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States.
“It was February of 2020 and I had decided to pursue my dream of being a business owner. I stepped away from my role as the general manager of a local hotel to open up a third-party staffing company. I knew what was going on with COVID-19, but like many people, did not know that it would have the impact that it did so the pandemic derailed my initial plans,” he explained.
Cole quickly pivoted, briefly shelved his start-up plans, and secured a job with the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM) to ensure financial stability for his family in the interim. As the Regional Vice- President of the Navy Lodge Program, Cole and his team provide temporary lodging across nine different properties in southeast United States and Cuba for service men and women who are on orders to permanently change station or for short-term duty assignments.
“The premise behind what we do is the same as commercial hotels which is to take care of guests,” Cole said. “Had I not had my MBA from William & Mary, I might not have gotten this particular job because their organization focuses on hiring from within. I believe I was able to differentiate myself from other candidates because of my William & Mary education and my years of prior work experience.”
Cole relied heavily on both as he transitioned into his new role leading a diverse team amidst a global pandemic. He says the Executive MBA curriculum prepared him to successfully navigate the COVID-induced challenges faced by organizational leaders, his associates, and customers during the last year.
“Hospitality is a personal relationship industry where you’re interacting with people directly. Almost immediately we had situations where there were almost no guests. Then we had to figure out how to create an environment where both our customers and employees felt safe all of the time,” he explained. “In the final semester of the MBA program, we had a course on strategy within business where we learned about rebuilding processes and change management. Learning how to apply that strategic mindset and acquiring tools related to managing people were some of the most valuable things I gained from the program.”
Cole graduated from William & Mary with his Executive MBA and emboldened by the opportunity. But he says if he’s honest, he was initially intimidated by the university’s reputation and unsure whether his 20 years of professional management experience would be enough to overcome a general studies undergraduate degree.
“As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, I was focused on intercollegiate sports. I played football for five years there and completed my degree in general studies because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career after college,” Cole explained. “I had an intention of going back to school and earning my master’s degree in business but I discovered the world of hospitality, started a family, and life picked up for me.”
“I knew William & Mary would be competitive but the admissions team and the program staff were so approachable. They found time for me. I even had an opportunity to speak with a couple of students after I sat in on a class as part of the admissions process and their feedback gave me the confidence to apply.”
Since completing the program and acquiring the regional position with NEXCOM, Cole has used his off-duty hours to pursue his entrepreneurial passion and start his own business. He founded Four85 Solutions Inc. in July 2020 through researching franchise opportunities for small start-up businesses.
Cole has aligned his interest in using data analysis to recommend efficiencies, streamline processes, and increase cash flow to establish a business model that serves medical professionals with concierge-level service as they bill out claims and collect reimbursements.
“My goal is to grow this business, form larger partnerships, and pass down a legacy to my sons that they can build off of someday,” he said.