As an institute of international renown, the Thunderbird School of Global Management has turned out numerous captains of industry and finance. However, the school also is recognized for its entrepreneurial alumni whose start-up businesses span the globe. Jeff Hillam, a 2013 graduate and second generation T-bird, is a prime example of this genre of T-bird.
Currently the owner of Nabnasset Group International, a Massachusetts-based company, Jeff’s business spans diverse activities from consulting with clinics for the intellectually and developmentally disabled to a new venture called BoothBomb, which designs and constructs tradeshow booths worldwide.
Nabnasset Group started as a consulting company that helps clinicians improve their businesses. Jeff began this work partially because of his brother, who has Down’s Syndrome. It turned into an interesting world of helping people who are intellectually and developmentally disabled, he says, explaining that it has given him the opportunity to work with government agencies, senators, NGOs and healthcare practices. Over the last few years, he has helped open 25 autism therapy centers across the country.
Consulting is not a final goal, but just his launch point as an entrepreneur. Prior to attending Thunderbird, he worked for several multi-billion dollar companies. However, he found himself limited in these roles. “I started to feel like people were telling me what I could and couldn’t do,” he says. Jeff says he has always wanted to work in the international arena. He grew up in Asia including Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines. His father, T-bird ‘86, has been working in and around Asia since 1978. He completed an LDS mission in Hong Kong and also has opened international operations for multiple large brands across much of the globe. Jeff also served as a missionary for the Church of Latter Day Saints in El Paso, TX, where he became fluent in Spanish. He says the mission happened at a pivotal moment in his life.
“That experience became more formative than I probably even realized. It helped me decide what my work ethic and moral values would be. It influences me every day,” he says. “Talking with people about religion in their homes is significantly more difficult than talking to a business about a little bit of cash.” After his mission, he worked a door-to-door sales job in which he earned more than any job until after he graduated from Thunderbird.
“I am a ‘Thunderkid’ and I grew up with a soft spot for Thunderbird. When I ended up doing international business right out of my undergrad, it was a logical segue. When I applied for a few graduate programs, Thunderbird was the most appealing and fit my personality. I came out of Thunderbird knowing that I can do business, build a business and lead an organization,” Hillam says. “Now I can speak about business in a vernacular that I didn’t have before. That opened as many doors for me as anything.”
Jeff launched Nabnasset Group and meeting fellow Boston-based T-bird Lisa Griffith who is now managing director of MedPanel, her own company. Jeff listened to her story of becoming an entrepreneur and Lisa encouraged him to develop a business plan, “and when I had it ready, she sort of pushed me off the edge. I thought: ‘I don’t know. I’ve got three kids.’ But she helped me through the early difficult stages, doing a lot of things that have never applied to my job before.”
In fact, he says, the whole Nabnasset project has been a Thunderbird effort. He has hired four T-bird interns and nearly half of his projects in the last year have come through T-bird referrals. He and his father are purchasing another company, and plan to recruit from Thunderbird. He also is working with another T-bird on a marketing campaign.
For now, he is focusing on BoothBomb, his latest project, which he launched with a Chilean partner. When he decided to buy two companies in Chile, the Thunderbird network opened up to him with help and advice on how to achieve his goals. The design house and engineering business had an existing portfolio of work across Latin America but uses suppliers from several countries, such as China and Mexico. Jeff says he is using revenue from the international operations growth to help sales and growth in the United States.
BoothBomb focuses on brand experience. “Where we try to stand out in this nascent stage is that we become a one-point provider, able to design and build booths for shows around the world,” Hillam says. “We hope that will help distinguish Boothbomb because so many competitors are built around a single city rather than a global service.”
“The Thunderbird network has basically kept my family fed for the last year. It has been a very active and helpful network. I want to join in and keep it healthy.”
He says the Thunderbird Mystique has lived up to its reputation. “It offers a network of like-minded people, a culture of global confidence, and a network of people who will encourage you to do crazy things.”
Connect with Jeff here via TIAA's online alumni platform.
Special thanks to Spotlight Author, John Kalkowski '86, Team TIAA VolunteerMore Spotlights