Allyson Hester’s path has taken her from the classroom to the Appalachian Trail to UGA’s Innovation District.
And on all of those winding roads, she takes time to appreciate the view.
“Planning and details have always been things I’ve enjoyed,” she said.
Hester taught elementary school in Jackson County for 11 years before taking time off to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. During that solo, six-month journey, she decided to take a different career path, and she joined UGA in 2016 as a program specialist in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, managing leadership programs in the college and the UGA Cooperative Extension. She spent three years there before taking a job with the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, a Public Service and Outreach unit, as a program coordinator.
“With programs, you get the planning, and you get to network and meet new people and establish relationships. You get to see it through and feel successful at the end of it,” she said. “I enjoy the whole process.”
Now, Hester is the program manager of Innovation Bootcamp, part of the Innovation District, which she calls “an on-ramp program into entrepreneurship.” Faculty, staff and community members can participate, and each cohort is tailored to a specific audience. In general, they meet monthly for a mix of learning sessions, group projects and one-on-one coaching. Past cohorts have focused on women entrepreneurs, musicians and those in computer science fields.
Much of Hester’s work involves researching the barriers and needs of her cohorts. Then, she finds people in that space who understand those barriers and needs to help her build useful curricula for the participants. That means a lot of planning, emails and meetings fill her day-to-day work. And when cohorts are in session, she spends her days working on the final details and sometimes even emceeing the sessions.
“The most important part of what I do is helping people understand the resources that we have for them at UGA when they have an idea in their mind that they don’t know what to do with,” she said. “One of the barriers for all entrepreneurs is getting started. So many people don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know the people. They don’t know the departments. They don’t know the support. It’s about introducing people to everything that we as a whole university can offer them on their journey.”
There are two cohorts of the Innovation Bootcamp each year—one in the fall and one in the spring—but Hester hopes to add more. The fall 2022 cohort, which is examining the unique challenges faced by innovators and entrepreneurs in fine arts, is wrapping up their sessions. The spring 2023 session will focus on entrepreneurs of color.
“Once someone participates in our program, we stick with them,” she said. “As long as they are in the entrepreneurial world and wanting to learn the next step, we’re there to support, coach, guide, mentor and help along the way.”
Hester has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the Mary Frances Early College of Education and graduated with a master’s degree in nonprofit management and leadership from the School of Social work in 2020. She’s also interested in getting another degree in Spanish in an effort to better provide for underrepresented groups in her role.
Hester’s life outside of work is just as varied as the entrepreneurial efforts her program supports. She continues to hike. She bartends at Southern Brewing Company. She’s even raced motorcycles.
But one of the things she’s most passionate about is animal welfare. She’s been actively involved with the Athens Area Humane Society and started (and still serves on the board) of Athenspets. She has two dogs of her own and fosters when she can.
“Life’s too short not to take risks, and I think that goes for me personally and our philosophy at the Innovation District,” she said. “Be willing and open to taking risks. Make the world better, and follow your passions. If you have an idea that is your passion and can also make the world better, then let’s talk about it.”