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A Head Start: Poole Entrepreneurship Alum ’15 Shares Impact of the Program in the Real World

By Caroline Barnhill

For many entrepreneurs, the sale of their first company is a reason to celebrate. For Poole College alumnus Ryan O’Donnell, who graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in business administration, entrepreneurship concentration, having that company be one you launched as a senior in college makes it especially meaningful.

EmployUs, an employee referral software program started by O’Donnell along with co-founders Jeff Stocks (Poole College of Management ‘82) and Matt Cotter (NC State College of Engineering ‘13), was recently acquired by Chicago-based Hireology. The sale of EmployUs is the latest success story to come out of the college’s entrepreneurship program, which is one of the highest-ranked in the country.

“As a start-up, you are always recruiting, hiring, selling and fundraising – and Poole’s entrepreneurship program gets you really comfortable with doing all of that,” O’Donnell explains. “You learn how to think through an abstract idea for a company and then formalize it to actually build something. Oftentimes at colleges, business students approach startup companies in a way that’s overly academic. They develop plans with the end goal to enter them into business competitions. But at NC State, we’re embedded into the local entrepreneurial ecosystem in a way that actually allows us to launch a company while we’re finishing the program.”

The support and connections provided along the way are also invaluable, O’Donnell adds.

As a sophomore Caldwell Fellow, O’Donnell, along with three classmates, launched his first startup, Pennies 4 Progress – a point-of-sale technology integration to boost donations for local nonprofits. 

“That was my first foray into entrepreneurship. I got to know Lewis Sheats, selected entrepreneurship as my concentration, and essentially started living in the e-Garage – and this was back when it was smaller tucked away in a basement of a building on campus,” O’Donnell laughs. “My junior year, I was asked by then-dean Ira Weiss to speak at a college industry advisory meeting about our work with Pennies 4 Progress. We weren’t taking salaries, so I asked this group of business leaders if anyone wanted to hire me for the summer.”

Jeff Stocks, a former Poole College of Management graduate himself, was in that meeting and took an immediate liking to O’Donnell. Stocks, former CEO of Manpower Group, offered O’Donnell a job – and a promise.

“Jeff looked at me and said, ‘I’m an entrepreneur like you, and we’re going to build a business together,’ ” O’Donnell remembers. 

Stocks remembers the same meeting. He recalls O’Donnell as being “a bright and energetic guy who was hungry to build something.”

Stocks had been in the recruiting industry for decades and knew the process to be challenging and cumbersome. He hired O’Donnell to become a recruiter, learn the pain points of the process and then develop a product that addresses those challenges. O’Donnell and Stocks also brought on Matthew Cotter, who studied engineering and also heavily involved in NC State’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, as their chief technology officer and co-founder. During O’Donnell’s senior year in 2014, that product turned into a business – EmployUs was born.

“Most companies have an employee referral program because it’s the best source of finding quality candidates. Unfortunately, many of them manage the program through Excel spreadsheets which is cumbersome and makes it more likely for things to fall through the cracks,” O’Donnell explains. “EmployUs makes it easy for companies to launch and grow their employee referral programs, leading to better quality hires while also helping them pay out bonuses on time – encouraging employees to continue to make quality referrals.” 

EmployUs received several rounds of funding from organizations like the Citrix Startup Accelerator Fund, NC IDEA, the Wolfpack Investor Network, Cofounders Capital and Engage Ventures.

“Lewis Sheats was incredible in making connections for us so early on in the process, and the college provided me with the flexibility to finish my degree while simultaneously launching EmployUs,” O’Donnell says. “By my senior year, I was hiring my own employees, working 9-to-5 and still rushing over to Nelson Hall for an evening business strategy class. It was fun sitting in a lecture about business strategy while I was building an actual business at the same time.”

With EmployUs’s recent acquisition by Hireology, O’Donnell will stay on and continue to grow and scale EmployUs and Hireology.

“Despite the challenges during the pandemic, EmployUs continued to grow and help companies hire thousands of employees,” O’Donnell says. “We will keep growing and there’s an exciting road ahead of us. Hireology has the ambitious goal of helping one million people get hired – and I’m excited to be a part of that mission.”