Aaron Perri ’02, EMBA ’10 was in fifth grade when his grandfather brought him 100 souvenir dice from Las Vegas. No longer valid for play, the dice had holes drilled through the middle. “I made them into key chains and sold them to my classmates,” Perri says. “Unfortunately, that venture was short lived as the principal didn’t appreciate me selling gambling paraphernalia at school.”
The key chains were only the beginning of Perri’s entrepreneurial endeavors. In sixth grade, he started a lawn mowing business. In high school he started an audio visual production company, APT Productions, that eventually put him on the path for one-of-a-kind opportunities, including his current role as executive director of Downtown South Bend Inc. (DTSB), as he explains in this Q&A.
How did your video company start you on your career path?
In undergrad, with the help of family and friends, I ran the business from my parents’ basement. In 2003, I created Notre Dame’s first-ever video yearbook. It was a ton of work — I must have gone to at least 300 events that year. But I ended up selling a couple thousand of them. For cash flow, I produced promotional, instructional and wedding videos and performed DJ jobs in between. After graduating, I continued APT full time for two years.
Because of my work, I became fairly well known on campus. Around this time, Senior Bar was transforming into Legends of Notre Dame restaurant and nightclub. I went on to join Legends as the program coordinator and, soon after, general manager. I was there for 7 ½ years, helping evolve the facility from a startup to a powerhouse. One of my favorite things to note is that we were recognized as one of the top 10 nightclubs in the country for live music.
How did your time at Legends lead to an EMBA?
The only business class I took in undergrad was about business planning for nonbusiness majors. It was taught by Professor David Hayes, who eventually became my mentor. While at Legends, I thought seriously about grad school, and David encouraged me to explore the EMBA. I was accepted into the program, however, the financial reality set in and I deferred a year. I was disappointed, but David mentioned the year would not be lost — I’d emerge even better prepared. The next year I was blessed to be nominated and awarded a full-tuition scholarship from the University. The sad thing is, three months prior, David had passed away. We never got to celebrate the news together.
What appealed to you about the Executive MBA? What did you hope to get out of it?
While I had been operating various businesses, I never studied the pragmatics of subjects such as accounting or management. I loved the idea that I could work and attend classes simultaneously. I also appreciated the notion of studying alongside top professionals from across the country — a network that I access and will continue to access for many years to come. Using our own businesses as case studies made the program especially interesting. It was satisfying to learn techniques and immediately apply them at Legends — particularly statistics, marketing and finance.
Why were you attracted to your current position?
Two years after I earned my MBA, I transitioned to DTSB, a nonprofit dedicated to economic development in downtown. South Bend is my hometown, and I had always been quite involved in serving the community. I recognized that this town was experiencing a transformation and, while leaving the University wasn’t an easy decision, I wanted to formalize my civic engagement to become a part of this new wave of energy and leadership.
How do you stay connected to Mendoza?
I guest lecture for several classes each semester and have volunteered with mock interviews. I also speak about South Bend at MBA orientation sessions, introducing students to the city and encouraging them to get the most out of their time here. In addition, a few groups or classes each semester typically use downtown as a basis for study. I enjoy working with these teams as they explore ways to assist the city and businesses within it.
What is one of your goals, either personal or professional?
Next year, 2015, is South Bend’s 150th birthday. We’ve got bold plans to celebrate on a grand scale, all year long, across the entire city. I’m most excited about the fact that we’re on course to unveil the largest, most dynamic public art display this city has even seen — an interactive display of light on the river, complete with nine lighting sculptures.
As far as my career, I’ve never planned that out too far in advance. It’s my goal to take advantage, 100 percent, of the opportunities that are currently in front of me. I figure if I do that well, my next step will clearly present itself. As for now, I truly enjoy working with so many good people and organizations who are all pushing to advance this community. The momentum is in our favor and I’m honored to be part of it.