Even with an MBA from Harvard University, a loving wife, healthy twins, a great job at Kraft Foods and two online companies on the side, Darren Brehm ('02, finance) still faces many challenges.
Those challenges started with a piece of firewood that changed his life forever.
In June 1993, Brehm, then 20, had just completed his sophomore year at SDSU and was on his way to celebrate summer vacation with a group of his friends at the Colorado River. He and his girlfriend, Faith, and one of their friends were in his SUV when a piece of firewood tumbled from his friend's car in front of them and hurdled toward them. As Brehm served to avoid the firewood lurching at his vehicle, he lost control, resulting in a horrific roll-over accident. While all three of the SUV's occupants were hospitalized, only Brehm suffered a life-altering injury.
"I dislocated my neck and the resulting damage to my spinal cord left me paralyzed from the chest down," said Brehm. "I spent a few months in the hospital and returned home in October 1993."
Brehm was forced to drop out of SDSU to recuperate and he found that he was unable to recover any of his mobility during the healing process, leaving him permanently wheelchair dependent. Eventually, he found that he was able to operate a computer using a keyboard, a trackball and dictation software which led the self-proclaimed "serial entrepreneur" to establish and operate a number of businesses along the way, starting with a two-year stint with a dot com in 1998.
Back to School
It was also around that time Darren and Faith – who married in 1996 – started taking classes at Palomar Community College. It was then he realized that school was not only feasible, but also enjoyable, Brehm decided to return to San Diego State to finish the degree he started.
"On the upside, I had good parking and the accommodations provided by the school for testing were phenomenal."
Turns out, there were more than a few issues to confront. Brehm was using a manual wheelchair at the time, which meant he needed help being pushed to and from class. Another issue was having to rely on others in the class to take notes for him. "It wasn't that they were bad notes," said Brehm. "But note taking is very personal, so I would have to re-write all the notes electronically after class while the content was still fresh in my mind. On the upside, I had good parking and the accommodations provided by the school for testing were phenomenal."
Even with the hurdles Brehm had to overcome, he transitioned easily from being a student at Palomar Community College to the rigors of a major 4-year university. Since many transfer students have difficulty making the adjustment, he chose to be a mentor for some of those business students to help ease them into a more demanding academic environment. Maria Palacio, who heads the mentor program, remembers Brehm as "an excellent role model for the new students to emulate – he had a great sense of humor and a determination to succeed."
On to Harvard
"I hoped that an MBA would be helpful in the advancement of my career and would positively impact my financial situation."
Brehm succeeded in earning his bachelor's degree in finance from SDSU in 2002 and went to work at the Boeing Company in Anaheim, Calif. "After a couple years, it was clear to me that I could not survive on my salary in the Southern California economy," he said. "I hoped that an MBA would be helpful in the advancement of my career and would positively impact my financial situation."
After applying to several top ranked MBA programs, Brehm was happy to learn that he had gotten accepted by several outstanding universities and eventually chose Harvard Business School after visiting the campus. He and his wife moved to Cambridge, Mass., until he completed his MBA in 2007.
At Home in Chicago
Today, Brehm is makes his home in the Chicago area with his wife and 2 1/2-year old twins. He currently works at Kraft Foods as an associate director of ingredients procurement, a position which he thoroughly enjoys. "You don't hear many people say 'when I grow up, I want to work in procurement,' but I find it tremendously satisfying. Plus, there's always a demand in the job market for good procurement professionals."
"College is an amazing place to learn a little more about who you are and build lifelong relationships!"
Finding a Need and Starting a Business
Brehm has also found a way to turn one of his favorite hobbies into a business venture. He enjoys traveling with his family, but found that there was a serious lack of information about wheelchair accessibility for many destinations. With this in mind, he formed Ability Trip in 2008, a website that provides specific information to disabled and senior travelers. In 2010, he won a $25,000 a Harvard Business School Social Entrepreneur Fellowship prize which he used to bolster Ability Trip.
Ability Trip it isn't his only business venture – he's also recently founded a company that makes custom covers for pinball machines called Pinball Armor. "It's been well received and if all goes well, it could turn out to be a big hit," said Brehm. "Pinball Armor is probably the best idea I've had as far as entrepreneurial ventures go."
Remember to Have Fun
Working full-time, raising a family and maintaining two side ventures takes a good deal of ambition to run everything successfully and having the ambition to control one's career is the advice Brehm offers to today's SDSU students. "They have more influence over their destiny than they realize," he said. He also recommends that students take their academics seriously, but to remember to have fun. "Make friends, play hard and help the community," he advises. "College is an amazing place to learn a little more about who you are and build lifelong relationships!"