Jake Poliskin didn’t have a typical senior year.
At the time, he was studying economics at Penn State. Like many of his peers, he worked a job in addition to his studies.
But the gig, a full-time investment position, was with Mark Cuban, the serial entrepreneur worth $3.4 billion. To make up for the time spent working, Poliskin took two summer classes after walking at graduation.
Instead of preparing for tests, Poliskin spent most of his senior year researching go-to-market strategies and growing a privacy-focused messaging platform, one of Cuban’s many ventures. Poliskin estimated the app, now known as Dust, had more than 10,000 daily active users.
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“I quickly grew up while I was here,” he said.
But on Wednesday, garbed in a sweatshirt and jeans, he blended back in at his alma mater. The 2015 graduate spoke with Evon Onusic, a State High grad, to students as part of Penn State Startup Week, a universitywide showcase of entrepreneurship and innovation that runs through Friday.
Poliskin, an associate with Mark Cuban Companies, admitted he was still young, still learning — not far removed from the group of students listening to him in the Information Sciences and Technology Building.
But he knew he liked money, he said, and was determined to make it, regardless of judgment or perception. As a freshman, he reached out to early-stage startups for internships in exchange for a meeting with their lead investor. He had extra motivation: That first year of college, he said, he learned his family was facing financial hardship.
“The end goal has been helping everybody whom I care about in my life with money, which probably sounds a little bit pretentious,” Poliskin, 24, said. “But that’s what my goal has been, and I realized that mattered more to my future and the opportunity for Mark than just studying.”
The gambit paid off. He scored an internship with a startup whose founder had connections with Cuban. After an introduction, the multi-billionaire followed Poliskin on Twitter, and invited him to see an NBA game between the Philadelphia 76ers, Poliskin’s hometown team, and Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks.
After two summers spent on Wall Street, Poliskin sent Cuban a note asking if he should stay in banking or choose another route. Cuban’s advice was short: “The next day he said ‘check your email,’ ” Poliskin recalls.
The first day of his senior year, he began working for Cuban.
“The role that I’m in, I shouldn’t have it,” Poliskin said. “The only reason I have it is because he recognizes hard work.”
Onusic, 26, took a different path to making it in the business world, one that took him more than 7,000 miles away from his hometown. On a whim, the State College Area High School graduate saved up $500 and bought a one-way ticket to China. He got a job and attempted to learn Mandarin.
He ended up staying for a year.
“You try to find opportunities,” said Onusic, now vice president of business development at TARA.AI and a principal with GothamAlpha. “Something like submitting 100 resumes a day just didn’t seem like a way to be successful.”
So he left home and what was comfortable. For Onusic, a 2013 Penn State graduate, it made the difference in landing his first job after college: a project manager position in Silicon Valley.
From there, he went on to found three startups and sold one, Algo, which provides data and artificial intelligence software.
“The China experience was an interesting one,” he said. “Because there were definitely moments of standing on a bridge, working three jobs a day in a foreign country where you don’t speak Mandarin and you just think to yourself, ‘What’s going to get me through this? How am I going to make it?’ ”