Engineering a musician

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Cassandra Sotos left her job at Accenture and moved to Nashville to pursue music professionally, she didn’t think she would find herself back at her alma mater in the very same engineering entrepreneurship class where she'd been a teaching assistant.

During the 2017 fall semester, Sotos was selected as an entrepreneur for a project undertaken by the students of ENGR 310: Entrepreneurial Leadership. As part of the curriculum of the class, under the guidance of Robert Beaury, interim director of engineering entrepreneurship, students were given the opportunity to find solutions for challenges faced by real entrepreneurs in their businesses. They were divided into teams and competed to present the best solution at the end of the semester.

“Our hope is that students gain a much better understanding of the types of issues entrepreneurs face and develop specific skills based upon solving real-world problems in a competitive environment,” said Beaury.

In previous semesters, students worked with a company that looked to break into the Australian market, made a comprehensive marketing plan for State College's Barranquero Coffee, and developed a recruiting plan to double the size of a local technology company in approximately nine months.

Last semester, the class worked to help Sotos launch a solo career in the music industry.  

“I’m transitioning in my career from one space in the music industry to another and so, I [reached out] to Professor Beaury to ask if any of the students in the entrepreneurship program would be interested in helping out,” Sotos said. “[Because] even if you think I’m just a musician and I just play the violin and sing, I am starting a business.”

Cassandra Sotos is an electric and acoustic violinist and fiddler who has been playing and performing music since her teenage years. While studying industrial engineering at Penn State, she traveled back and forth between Pittsburgh and New York to “build her repertoire and experience.”

Eight years ago, she graduated from Penn State with a job at Accenture waiting for her. 

“I always knew that I wanted to do music professionally, and I knew that it was a goal of mine and something that I would never give up,” Sotos said. “I thought I was going to get the big call one day. But, that’s not exactly how it happened.”

Throughout the nearly three years she spent at Accenture, Sotos played music all over New York City with several bands. Occasionally, performances would take her around the country, giving her the rush she had always wanted.

To chase her music aspirations full time, she left Accenture in 2013 and moved to Nashville. There, she had opportunities that allowed her to collaborate with Tony Harnell, an American power metal singer who works with the Norwegian rock band TNT, and the guitarist of Guns n’ Roses, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal. However, Sotos said it wasn’t enough for her.

“I want to transition into being the front person — the artist, the songwriter, the main performer. I want to be able to invite you to my show,” Sotos said. “And, I look at that like starting a business.”

This was where the students of ENGR 310 came into the picture.

“I told the students that I’m making this transition and I’m recording an EP,” Sotos said. “I need a certain amount of money for it and I need a creative way to market and distribute it.”

Sotos’s requirements included a promotion and distribution plan for her first solo EP. Students had to create a plan to increase her social media following and plan a crowdfunding strategy by using as little money as possible, all while applying the concepts of value proposition and commercialization that are taught in their class. The students had the opportunity to introduce themselves and their basic ideas at the beginning of the project to Sotos via video chat. Sotos visited the students on campus later in the semester to gauge the development of the projects and answer any additional queries.

Initially, Sotos reached out to Beaury to seek help with her transition. Beaury, who remembers her as an expressive and creative student from his previous years of teaching, offered her a position on the live case study project after discerning that Sotos’ story could be a unique demonstration to the students of ENGR 310.

“She was a great engineering student but also an accomplished musician with a highly creative artistic mindset; a very rare combination,” Beaury said.

At the end of the project, one team led by Alli Colaizzi, a student studying energy business and finance, was declared the winner of the competition. Other team members include Emily Sun, mechanical engineering; Srikar Danda, mathematics; Adnan Abualsaud, energy engineering; and Mila Resetar, community, environment, and development. They concentrated heavily on the social media campaign, with revamping Sotos’ website and providing material for her platforms and devised the use of customized merchandise at her performances.

“From the beginning, Cassandra was very vocal about the fact that she wanted us to contact her anytime with any questions and we took advantage of that. I think the relationship we formed [with her] is ultimately why we won because every group had fairly similar ideas, but we knew her well enough to present the ideas in a way that she would like,” said Colaizzi, who currently works as a part of Sotos’ social media team. “I really loved this project, and ENGR 310 in general, because we were able to get real-world consulting experience while still in college.”

According to Beaury, the winning team produced a robust set of ideas, complete with a comprehensive social media strategy, merchandising ideas and overall launch plan that Sotos felt she could put to use. The team redesigned her website and also went the extra mile by establishing a potential collaboration with another artist for Sotos, which she was impressed with.

“I find that the students in this program tend to be some of the best and brightest, most creative thinkers and the-next-big-thing kind of people,” Sotos said. “[The project] has turned out to be really amazing and so much more than I could have asked for in the beginning.”

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Last Updated April 16, 2018