Liberal Arts international student finds success in entrepreneurship

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa – Originally hailing from Panama, Leo Girlando always knew he wanted to study money – it was “something ingrained in his subconscious.”

In Latin America, you do not really have any investing opportunities – people do not have brokerages like Robin Hood (Ventures). There are hardly any liquid stock markets in Latin America, ”he said. “You do not really get exposed to anything beyond the corporate finance route.

Frankly, I did not even know Wall Street was a real place, I thought it was a movie thing. So when I arrived in Penn State, and I found all of these resources and all of these opportunities, I was just mind-blown. ”

Girlando, a senior majoring in Chinese and finance, first began studying in China. He studied the language and culture while meeting new people for approximately seven months and then decided to head to the United States.

“(Moving to the United States) would fulfill that mission to myself by having this global perspective,” the Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar said. “I eventually realized that the global network that Penn State has is really something impressive.”

To build upon his previous global experiences, Girlando kept studying Chinese at Penn State to keep his language skills sharp.

“I also wanted to study something else besides finance and be part of different colleges, expose myself to different types of classes, different types of people,” he said. “Liberal Arts, which was the best option, is a little bit of everything.”

Eventually, Girlando found his passion – it was the type of passion that made him lose track of time and made him feel like he was really doing something valuable. He realized his calling when helping a friend work on a startup.

Girlando joined Happy Valley VC, which he is now the president of, and has devoted “70-80%” of his time outside of classes to it. Happy Valley VC’s mission is to facilitate student engagement with the tech startup world while helping student founders secure funding. Happy Valley VC and Innoblue will host a Startup Week entrepreneurship celebration from 4 to 7 pm Monday, April 4, at Penn State Innovation Hub (123 S. Burrowes St).

Girlando has gone on to extrapolate his experiences with Happy Valley VC and other entrepreneurship opportunities at Penn State to an international scale as well. He’s part of the founding team of College Ventures Network, which takes the type of work at Happy Valley VC to 50-plus other universities across North America, Australia and the UK College Ventures Network describes itself as the first global network of student-run startup accelerators and venture capital funds in the world.

“This (is) by far the thing I love doing the most,” Girlando said. “And it’s the thing that I just can not stop thinking about.”

Girlando has carried lessons from his Liberal Arts education throughout all of his entrepreneurship ventures. He initially considered adding a third major in economics after finding great value in his introductory level economics courses – this led him to two internships at the Bank of America where he studied economics and investment opportunities.

Moreover, in his Liberal Arts classes, and specifically in his Chinese classes, there’s an emphasis on conversation and sharing and hearing ideas. Girlando said the College of Liberal Arts has exposed him to people with different backgrounds and majors – “being surrounded by people from different perspectives is really valuable.”

“That really helped me a lot as an international student to feel very comfortable conversing with other peers and sharing my thoughts, and knowing that you also have to listen,” he said. “That’s something I do every single day in Happy Valley VC when I’m meeting with all of the entrepreneurs.

“Having these very genuine conversations, like in my Chinese classes, makes me build relationships in less of a transactional manner and in more of an actual, genuine relationship.”

Girlando has also felt the benefits of being a Paterno Fellow.

“Being a Paterno Fellow has helped me boost my engagement on campus and enrich my experience as an international student at Penn State,” Girlando said. “From participating in its distinguished academic community to hearing from exceptional leaders during events and leveraging financial support throughout the research process for my honors thesis, I believe being a Paterno Fellow provides significant benefits for students to transform their academic experience.”

These skills that Girlando has gained in the College of Liberal Arts have allowed him to continue finding success in his entrepreneurship ventures.

Girlando will graduate this May. He’s currently completing a co-op at Dynamo Ventures, which is a venture capital fund. The co-op will conclude at the end of June, and he’ll then move on to working at Bank of America where he’ll work in the global markets division and specifically the Latin American local institutional sales team. Later, he sees himself enrolling in graduate school.

And for the long term, Girlando plans to take on a chief financial officer role within his family business in Panama.

“Nothing would make me happier than to come back with all of these amazing experiences and knowledge and use it to grow the family pie and work together with my family to improve things locally,” he said. “I hope that I’ll also be able to continue working at Dynamo and use this platform to invest in the Panama entrepreneurial system.”

Ultimately, Girlando understands finding direction as an undergraduate student can be challenging for many. But, he’s been advised to “figure out what you want to do, and the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ becomes really easy.”

“Figuring out the ‘what’ could be really broad and overwhelming sometimes, but it’s as easy as just looking at some of the industries that you think are interesting and some of the student organizations related to that industry,” he said. “Go to those meetings and figure out why these people like being in this student org.

“That’s going to help you understand not only ideas and why people might want to do this, but it also (shows) what kind of people are in the industry and what kind of people are trying to get in the industry.”

To learn more about Liberal Arts Change Makers, visit

Paterno Fellows Program

The Paterno Fellows Program is an innovative program offered jointly by the College of Liberal Arts and Schreyer Honors College that encourages students to challenge themselves academically and distinguish themselves in areas traditionally associated with the liberal arts: ethics, service, and leadership; excellence in communication; and intercultural awareness. Fellows receive financial support to participate in enriching out-of-class experiences like internships, education abroad, and research.

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