Steve and Becky Whitman spoke excitedly about an upcoming trip to Paris as a cool breeze wafted through the screened-in porch of their Lexington, Kentucky home. Though both Whitmans enjoy visiting the City of Light, their reason for excitement has more to do with their traveling companions.
“It’s always fun to be with someone who is seeing it for the first time,” Becky said. “It’s fun to do that, to be a part of someone’s growth experiences.”
“I’m almost positive it will have an impact on their outlook and what their futures are going to be,” Steve said.
Nine Indiana State University students joined the Whitmans in Paris for five days where they visited cultural sites such as the Eiffel Tower and Versailles as well as met with the heads of six French businesses, from a major bank to a small software firm. It’s part of the Whitman European Business Student Experience in which the students receive financial support for the trip abroad and time with the Whitmans. Students gain from Steve’s international business expertise as they learn about European business operations, make connections for potential internships and jobs and become familiar with international business practices. When the students return to the ISU campus, they will speak with fluidity of the international business language they mastered under the Whitmans’ tutelage.
“We looked at Steve’s talents and experience and this was a good way to give back,” Becky said.
“Some things have changed since I was in school obviously,” said Steve, a 1977 ISU graduate in business administration. “One of the things is the same. When you grow up in Indiana, you kind of have a view of the world from where you grow up. But in business, anybody working going forward, it’s a lot smaller world. You will have relationships with companies and people all around the world.”
Learning the language
Steve never had any doubt that he would attend college. His parents didn’t leave that as a question for him. Steve’s grandfather worked in the coal mines around Princeton. His father turned from the mines and went to college.
“That was probably the only standing order in the house,” Steve said. “We were going to take college preparatory classes in high school. We were going to get good enough grades to go to college and we were going to go to college.”
He just originally didn’t plan to attend ISU, but it soon became the school for him to attend.
“I really thought the size of the campus, the size of the classes were attractive for ISU,” he said. “It fit better.”
From his freshman to his senior year, Steve said business faculty members questioned him as to his plans to make sure he was in the right program, enrolled in the right classes. He chose to study business management because he wanted an environment interacting with people.
“That kind of rules out being in a studio and being an artist,” he said with a laugh, adding he didn’t have the aptitude for art.
Studying business at ISU gave him the language and understanding of business.
“What I wanted to get from Indiana State was how finances work and balance sheets,” he said. “I wanted to learn the corporate language.”
Though he spent time at the library and surprised himself by being a better student than he thought, Steve still had a social life on campus. As a member of the Lambda Chi fraternity, Steve participated in the Trike Race, the Tandem Race and Campus Review.
“The last year, basketball was a lot of fun,” he said.
Speaking the language
After graduating from ISU, Steve returned to Evansville where he began working in sales for Xerox. He met Becky and they married. He went on to work in senior management, sales management and product marketing positions with Digital Equipment Corp. and First Data. “Then I was fortunate enough to get hooked up with a couple of guys starting a software company,” he said. That company became Exstream Software, which provided businesses with customer communication software, and Steve had worldwide responsibility for sales and marketing. In one year, he traveled to Paris from Lexington 16 times as well as to many other areas of the globe.
“I never felt like anyone I sat down with in a business environment knew more about business than I did,” he said. “I just felt like the solid education at Indiana State put me on the same level with them.”
In 2008, Hewlett Packard purchased Exstream. Steve retired as executive vice president of the company.
“From our perspective, being as fortunate as we’ve been, I think we constantly look for ways to help,” Steve said. “Becky really is a great compliment to me in that regard in looking for ways to help other people. That’s fulfilling.”
A meeting with John Heintz, an ISU Foundation director of development, reconnected Steve and Becky with ISU. He returned to visit the university and met with Nancy Merritt, Dean of the School of Business. That led them to the creation of the European experience program.
“It was a good fit as a gift for me and Becky to give them a European experience,” he said.
Bruce McLaren, associate dean of the Scott College of Business, said when they looked at the applications of the students who applied for the trip, they found many did not have passports.
“Six of the nine students who went on the trip had not traveled outside the United States,” he said “It really opened their eyes about global opportunities. A trip like this helps students expand their scopes and worlds.”
Ishaan Vadhera, a junior business marketing and economics major from India, is thankful for the Whitmans sponsoring the trip through ISU. He knows that it will impact his future.
“I am truly blessed to get the opportunities I get here because I am here,” he said. “I’m not here and regretting that I should have gone to Harvard, Columbia or Yale, because ISU is my Harvard, it is my Columbia and it is my Yale.”
Thus far the Whitmans have planned two additional trips to Europe for ISU junior business majors. But Steve hopes that it will continue further in the future and perhaps inspire others.
“Maybe this becomes a model for other alumni to do the same thing and pattern after,” he said.
McLaren called the Whitmans’ gift generous.
“With Steve and Becky Whitman there to explore and explain while we’re traveling in Paris is just as great as the monetary gift,” he said. “I believe every one of the six students will use their passports again before they expire in 10 years.”
Jennifer Sicking, GR ’11, is the editor of Indiana State University Magazine and associate director of ISU media relations.