Mountaineers of Silicon Valley

Our alumni leave impressions across the globe,
including the tech capital of the world


Mountaineers of Silicon Valley

A Gritty Road To Google: Ola Adekunle's Unconventional Path To Silicon Valley

Ola Adekunle grew up believing you should never be limited by what you see. His family taught him to dream big and persevere to realize those dreams.

That advice became the charge that led Adekunle to Mountain View, Calif., where he works as a patent attorney for Google.

It’s a surreal existence for an engineer by trade who was born and raised in Nigeria and faced many obstacles to come to the United States for an education.

“I knew I wanted to come to America for college, but I wasn’t eligible for scholarships or financial aid as an international student,” Adekunle said. “Everything from the financial piece to getting my visa was challenging, but I didn’t lose hope and just kept going.”

Through the love and support of his family, he found himself on the campus of Shepherd University, where he assimilated to American culture and earned his associate’s degree in engineering.

For his next chapter, he landed in Morgantown to become a Mountaineer. As it turned out, it was a decision that changed his life – and gave him a new dream.

When he came to West Virginia University to earn his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, he had no idea that he would leave in 2007 with three degrees in three different disciplines.

He brought a passion for helping students to campus. He especially wanted to connect with international students who faced the same challenges he did in coming to America.

“Coming to America on your own, you develop the confidence to get to know new people,” said Adekunle. “I got involved on campus as a tutor, resident assistant and New Student Orientation guide so that I could meet people and alleviate some of my financial stress. I also wanted to be that connection for someone that I needed when I came to America and was learning a new culture.”

As Adekunle pursued his degree and embraced the student experience at WVU, his dreams expanded. He wanted to become a patent attorney.

He had to find a way – and that required earning two more degrees in business administration and law.

Adekunle met with then-WVU President David Hardesty and his chief of staff, Jennifer Fisher (who’s still with WVU as an executive officer on President E. Gordon Gee’s staff), and it was through their guidance that he secured a graduate assistant position in the Office of Instructional Technology.
“I knew I needed to pursue MBA and law degrees to prepare me to be a patent attorney, but the funding piece was a big worry for me,” said Adekunle. “It became possible because there were people at WVU who believed in me and were
willing to help me find a way to make it work financially.”

His perseverance, instilled in him as a young boy in Nigeria, paid off. He earned those three degrees at WVU. And it led him to four states through his career, working his way up at boutique intellectual property firms in Maryland and Virginia, to a five-year career as in-house counsel at Hewlett Packard in Houston, Texas, all the way to his current position of patent attorney at Google, which he started in 2017.

And he still has the same infectious passion for helping students that he developed at WVU. Adekunle works with Google’s Legal Summer Institute, which improves the pipeline of underrepresented individuals in the legal profession. He also mentors future generations of lawyers through Google’s Street Law program, in which high schoolers from diverse backgrounds learn about the practice of law.

“I learned so many leadership lessons during my experiences as a student at WVU that shaped me holistically and taught me the joy that comes from giving back to others,” said Adekunle. “I hope others can learn from my story.”

He’s staying connected to his alma mater, too. Adekunle was appointed to serve on the WVU Foundation Board of Directors earlier this year.

His perseverance also comes in handy when raising not one, but two sets of twins (a pair of 3-year-old girls and two 6-year-old boys) with his wife, Yetunde, who he met in church while living in Virginia.

“I see my kids and their joy and simplicity of life just inspires me every day,” said Adekunle. “They teach me love.”

As Adekunle peruses the snack selection in the microkitchen of a place where the innovation and technology of tomorrow is born, he’s grateful to be living a dream that he fought tirelessly to realize with the love of his family.

But he hasn’t forgotten the place that paved the way.

My time at West Virginia University taught me that I can do anything. I got my grittiness in West Virginia.


From Funyuns to Fortune 500: A Morgantown native’s climb to the top of business and tech

While growing up in Morgantown, W.Va., Amy Cappellanti-Wolf heard the same request from her father over and over again: “Stay out of the newspaper.”

The Cappellanti name was well-known throughout Morgantown. Her dad, August, owned and operated Cappellanti’s Grill, a local favorite for “steak sandwiches and Old Milwaukees” on Walnut Street, for nearly 40 years.

Part joke and part motivation, “stay out of the newspaper” essentially meant don’t do anything wrong.

But staying out of the press hasn’t been entirely easy for Cappellanti-Wolf, for different reasons. Over the last several years, the two-time West Virginia University alumna has made waves throughout the business and tech world.

Recently named one of the top 50 most influential women tech leaders by the National Diversity Council, Cappellanti-Wolf serves as a senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Symantec, the world’s largest cybersecurity software company, based in Mountain View, Calif.

And in October 2019, she was inducted into the John Chambers College of Business and Economics Roll of Distinguished Alumni.

It’s been quite a storied career for the small-town girl who bartended through college (she even worked for her father’s competition at the old Chestnut Pub) to make ends meet before embarking on her big dreams.

 “I grew up with the expectation of someday being a Mountaineer,” Cappellanti-Wolf said. “My first love was chemistry so I thought I’d do pre-chem and then go into pharmacy. I took all the chem and math classes and, after the first year, I did not love it.”

So she drifted over to the journalism school in hopes of becoming a journalist. She wrapped up her bachelor’s there in 1986. But she wasn’t done with college. She blazed through the master’s industrial and labor relations program over the next year.

From there, the world was hers.

“What I found super interesting in the program was organizational psychology, how to motivate and innovate
with employees, and negotiating,” she said.

Those tools carried her through every role she’s taken
on since.

First, Frito-Lay recruited her to work at its Atlanta, Ga., location right out of grad school.

“I won’t tell you how much they offered me,” she said, jokingly. “But everyone loved parties I went to because I brought the chips.

”But, seriously, I learned so much, such as the human element, about working in a manufacturing plant. This was an older plant with senior employees who had to learn statistical process controls. They were very late in their careers and had never been exposed to sophisticated manufacturing practices.”

Cappellanti-Wolf had to train those workers. She also handled grievances and perhaps, most interestingly, oversaw the production of everyone’s favorite onion-flavored snack, Funyons. 

After two years there, the crumbs led to the Frito-Lay offices in Orlando, Fla., where she worked with sales leaders throughout the state of Florida. In that role, she sharpened her business acumen and learned about change management.

Then a magical kingdom came calling.

Disney recruited her for its Disney Institute, the professional development and external training arm of the Walt Disney Company. At the time, the Disney Institute was a resort and learning center based on the Chautauqua Institution in
New York.

Cappellanti-Wolf got to create a bit of her own magic as part of a team that built Disney ships in Venice, Italy.

In 2001, she’d wind up working with another celebrated two-time WVU graduate, John Chambers, at Cisco Systems as its vice president of human resources.

After eight years with Cisco, Cappellanti-Wolf needed to slip out of her comfort zone. She took a risk, leaving the company to serve as chief human resources officer for an early stage start up, Silver Spring Networks.

That risk paid off. She helped the company go public in 2013 (and even took selfies with her husband on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange after ringing the bell!). She also established all of the HR infrastructure, programs and technology to drive global scale for the fast-growing hardware, software and services business.

When she joined Symantec in 2014, the company was a $7 billion business with 20,000 employees. However, it had somewhat of an identity issue. It was a blend of a cybersecurity company and a storage company.

So one of the first tasks of Cappellanti-Wolf’s was to dismantle it.

“They didn’t really go together,” she said. “They wanted to get back to a pure cybersecurity business, which we all know is super critical right now related to the prevalence of cyberattacks. I knew that this job with Symantec would be complex and transformative, which was why I took it.”

Armed with more than three decades of experience leading companies through complex transformations, Cappellanti-Wolf leads Symantec’s workplace/workforce strategy and planning, real estate and facilities organizations. She has successfully led the global organizational operating model, structure, change management and integration strategies for local scale acquisitions.

“There is a special human skill needed to do this work, But there’s also the data and analytics that drive better decision-making for not just the business, but for the people.”

Banking on instinct: How a California ‘adventure’ led to a storied career at Visa

Not everyone dreams the big dream.

Bill Sheedy didn’t, at first.

Yet his office overlooks one of the most iconic views in the world – the San Francisco Bay.

An executive vice president at Visa, the ever-humble Sheedy attributes his success to a blend of hard work, luck and happenstance.

Here’s how one summer morning in 2019 shaped up for him in the office: Call an executive in Dubai about a potential merger and acquisition, handle a personnel issue after receiving a text saying “we’ve got to figure this out,” be interviewed for this story, attend a board meeting and prepare for a flight to London, England.

Sheedy earned his finance degree at WVU in 1988 and then an MBA at Notre Dame in 1990 before venturing to the West Coast for a temporary “California adventure.” Sheedy grew up in Hollidaysburg, Pa., a town of under 6,000 near Altoona. And he’d never been on an airplane.

“I never felt sheltered, thanks to my parents, but we lived a relatively small-town existence,” said Sheedy, one of seven children. “Although the idea of going somewhere else to live and work was somewhat intimidating, I instinctively knew I needed the challenge.

“My priority was to be able to take care of myself and my family. Beyond that, my only goals were to not get fired, show up at work early and do what was asked of me, and always do a bit more than was expected. I don’t think you have to dream big. But you have to have enough courage to take risks and think big when the opportunities inevitably present themselves.”

In California, Sheedy landed a job with a bank, which was eventually absorbed into Citibank. While there, he gained more experience than he “expected right out of school.” But it was enough experience for him to realize it wasn’t what he wanted to do.

Out of the blue, as Sheedy questioned his next career move, he received a call from a headhunter pitching Visa to him.

“All I knew about Visa was it was a card in my wallet.”

Sheedy wound up meeting his Visa hiring manager, who happened to be a member of the original Visa management team, the 21st person ever hired by the company.

“He talked to me about the vision of the founder of the company, and this was going back over 30 years,” Sheedy said. “The vision was to create digital currency that would make life more powerful, efficient and deal with the constraints of paper currency.”

A global digital currency?

Get out of here.

“It sounded outlandish in 1993,” he said. “It was still a cash world and most people hadn’t conceived of digital commerce, much less think about the global economy as we do now.”

Sheedy accepted a position at Visa, and money became digital, obviously, changing how we buy and sell across the globe, as well as changing how we live and spend our
 valuable time.

“Although banks issue Visa cards, there’s nothing too bank-ish about the company,” he said. “What we work on is the effective movement and management of a vast telecommunications and processing network that moves transactions in milliseconds around the world. We are a technology company.

“Today we’ll process over $30 billion a day. Back then, we might do a billion dollars in six months.”

It’s a network plugged into three billion-plus Visa accounts and 56 million merchant locations stretched to every corner of the globe.

One of Visa’s strengths that’s kept him there so long is the powerful company culture. The Silicon Valley and San Francisco area are broader extensions of that ideal collaborative culture dynamic and focus on using technology to change people’s lives, Sheedy said.

“In other environments, when you challenge someone in a business setting, you might figuratively get punched right back,” he said. “There’s a perception that competition is contentious and very direct. I’ve found a different culture in the SF Bay Area. Here, we challenge people through ideas, our creativity and through collaboration. Some of the best companies collaborate with others, finding ways for technology to facilitate this collaboration and leading to innovations in technology, products and services. It’s a culture I feel has the potential to shape how businesses and economies will evolve and grow.”

Sheedy has been at Visa for 27 years. He’s on the global executive committee and reports to the CEO for the $400 billion market capitalization company. He leads the company’s corporate strategy and mergers and acquisitions efforts, global corporate policy and government relations, Visa’s social impact organization and Visa University, its learning group. Over the course of his career, Sheedy has run three of Visa’s five regions, having responsibility for North America, Latin America
and Europe.

He certainly has the resume to reflect the advice he has for young people yearning for success.

“You must expand your experiences, take smart risks and take in as much as you can from the people, places and things around you to inform what you want long-term,” Sheedy said. “Persevering in a positive way is necessary in your 20s. And learn to ask good questions that are well-crafted enough to bring out from others a wealth of unexpected information.” 

For the Chambers College, Sheedy has given back to where he learned the tools of his trade. In 2012, he and his wife established the William and Patricia Sheedy Endowment, to which they and Visa have made pledges since. The funding is used for special initiatives like experiential learning through practice and application, lectures and events and special programming for students and faculty.

“I'm absolutely certain that my four years in Morgantown helped shape me in a way that allowed me to be a good husband and father as well as gave me the personal and intellectual foundation for my career. WVU is a wonderful institution, and its important mission deserves our time and our full support.”

“I don’t think you have to dream big, but you have to have enough courage to take risks.”