“I could probably do a pretty good job of convincing you I’m undeserving… There are so many students who graduate and go on to do wonderful things,” says Neal Sharma, SPA/BA’98. The first alumnus to win the AU Alumni Association’s Rising Star Award says he was “deeply honored and humbled” to learn he was selected. “To receive this award, especially the first ever, is truly flattering,” says the Overland Park, Kansas, resident and businessman.
It’s been quite a year for Sharma, who got married last year to his college sweetheart, Angela (Lower) Sharma, CAS/BA ’98; joined AU’s Board of Trustees in May; turned 30 in September; and is expecting his first child in a few months.
Sharma began making a name for himself well before learning he was selected to receive AU’s new Rising Star award. He came to AU on a presidential scholarship and quickly became involved in a breadth of activities on and off campus. He was an RA in Letts Hall for two years (which is how he met his wife, Angela, who was a resident assistant on the floor above his), and despite calling himself “a crappy student,” he graduated cum laude.
“My grades didn’t necessarily reflect how poor a student I was, but I really didn’t attend as many classes as I should have, largely because I was so involved in extracurricular activities, student government, and working on a presidential campaign for Bob Dole,” says Sharma. “I really did learn from the classroom that is D.C., and I saw action translated back into theory at AU and that was pretty great.”
As president of student government his senior year at AU (1997-98) Sharma had the privilege of introducing President Bill Clinton when he addressed campus that fall. “That was an interesting time for me, because I used to work for Senator Dole,” says Sharma, who was the youngest salaried staff member of the Dole campaign at the time, having worked his way up from being an intern at Dole’s political think tank, Better America.
Upon graduation, Sharma returned home to Kansas and enrolled into the University of Kansas’s MBA program, where he says he “got in trouble for talking about business” in a business school class he found not very intellectually stimulating. “We realized we might as well be doing the real thing,” says Sharma of himself and one of the business partners with whom he cofounded Digital Evolution Group in 1999.
Sharma is the big-picture guy, overseeing the strategy and direction of the full-service Internet firm that builds complex Web-based software – intranets, extranets, and e-commerce sites – for a variety of institutions including the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas City Zoo, the Arts Council of Kansas City, and public companies such as Sprint, the Cerner Corporation, and Boston-based New Balance.
Today, Digital Evolution Group is one of fastest growing companies in Kansas City. Despite the company’s impressive rankings and client list, Sharma seems to take the most pride in the entrepreneurial path he’s taken and the rewards he’s found along the way. “Entrepreneurship has been an overarching theme of my life since leaving AU,” he says.
He serves on the steering committee for the major fundraiser of the University of Kansas Hospital, the board committee on marketing and fundraising for the Kansas City Chapter of the American Red Cross, and as a member of the exclusive Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program. Additionally, Digital Evolution Group is a significant sponsor of organizations focused on cancer research and recovery, hunger-related issues, and character and childhood education.
“I came to AU with the firm belief that government and especially American government is one of the best ways to make a difference in the world,” says Sharma. “I left AU with that belief strengthened, which is no small feat, because most people leave college more cynical than when they arrived. When I marched down the path of entrepreneur, I didn’t realize it would be so personally fulfilling and that I'd have the opportunity to make a difference in the world around me. Fundamentally, making a difference is the reason why I’m here on this planet.”