Motivational duo, alumni return to Penn State for startup week

Joe Battista speaks at Penn State during Startup Week on April 17 at the Information Sciences and Technology Building.
Joe Battista speaks at Penn State during Startup Week on April 17 at the Information Sciences and Technology Building.

The two veteran businessmen traded repartee like a pair of rappers. But instead of quips about days gone by, their pass-the-mic affair focused on looking ahead, things like leadership, self-improvement and finding one’s path in life.

As part of their talk, “Developing Options and Making Informed Choices in the Digital Era,” Penn State alumni Ken Pasch and Joe Battista advised students on becoming CEOs in more than just the boardroom.

“Think about where you’re going to be in that last stage, and you’ve got a movie that’s being made about your life,” Battista told the crowd. “Let’s hope it’s Oscar-worthy.

“That’s the challenge.”

Their stage, a classroom in the Information Sciences and Technology Building, was one of several under the fluorescent spotlight on Monday, the first day of Penn State Startup Week, a universitywide showcase of entrepreneurship and innovation. More than 30 alumni were scheduled to speak during the week.

Pasch and Battista led off. Both have deep roots with the university.

Pasch joined the Air Force after graduating from Penn State in 1975, spending the next six years in the air. He returned to his alma mater in 1998, teaching accounting and business classes for almost two decades. Today, his company, KiVisions, offers leadership consulting to businesses and organizations, a dream, Pasch says, that has been 30 years in the making.

Between his time as a pilot and his time at Penn State, Pasch managed medical facilities — his first time in a leadership role. Initially he struggled, he told the students.

“Have you ever had a bad boss?” he asked. “I was one of those bad bosses, and I felt horrible that my team was not getting where they could go, and where we needed to go. And so I took it upon myself to figure this out.”

He challenged himself to reinvent his leadership style, a topic he and Battista emphasized in their presentation. “You’ve got to keep learning and you’ve got be transformational,” Battista said.

“I was having sleepless nights,” Pasch said. “I said, ‘I wonder if what it takes to get an aircraft or organization off the ground is similar.’ I had no idea where it came from, but then I started testing it, and they are.”

Battista, known as the “Godfather” of the Penn State men’s hockey program, was a player and then a coach for the team, recording 512 wins and six American Collegiate Hockey Association national titles in the latter role. For more than two decades, he served in a number of roles with the university, including the Associate Athletic Director for Pegula Ice Arena and Hockey Development. Battista, a 1983 graduate, was a key player in getting the program to become a NCAA Division I sport and in the construction of Pegula Ice Arena.

Now the CEO of leadership development company Pragmatic Passions, the former hockey coach says he doesn’t prescribe to the theory of born leaders. A disciple of other coaching greats such as Vince Lombardi and Mike Krzyzewski, Battista thinks they can be developed, a belief he highlighted to the listening students on Monday.

His son, Jon, for example, attended last year’s event as a senior. Now he works for Weebly, whose founders, fellow alums David Rusenko and Chris Fanini, also spoke during startup week.

“We’re all learning,” Battista said. “Talent alone isn’t enough.”

The pair first met about 15 years ago, Pasch recalls, at a birthday party of their sons’ mutual friend. At the time, Battista was the men’s hockey coach, while Pasch was working as an instructor in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.

But their business relationship is far younger. Pasch, who still refers to Battista as “Coach,” said they’ve been teaming up for about a month.

“Joe speaks more to people’s gut, and I speak more to people’s mind,” Pasch said. “He builds that fire in people, and then I help them get where they can go.”

Their teamwork impressed Adrian Jeong, a junior who attended the talk. Jeong, 25, has dreams of starting his own company. He said the presentation helped him think about effective leadership in a different light.

Junior Jackson Houser, 20, said he responded to how Pasch and Battista threaded the tangible with their talk of dreaming big. “I liked how they both wrapped in their own personal experiences,” he said.

But the duo’s talents only extend so far. Their pass-the-mic presentation may have been geared toward the millennial crowd, but they won’t be dropping 16 bars anytime soon.

“No, you do not want to hear me sing in any way, shape or form,” Pasch said, laughing. “But I think a part of it is we think a lot alike. Like the thing he says …

“That’s my line, he doesn’t even know yet.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy