Faculty & Staff Feature: Meet Nakia Vargas

April 1, 2024

Nakia Vargas, Career Educator

1. Share a little bit about your journey from practicing accounting to founding your own financial services business and the young CEO program. How have those experiences led to where you are now?

I’m an RIT alumnus who graduated in 2008 with a degree in accounting and a minor in marketing and advertising. I started my career in accounting at a non-profit support agency, where I spent several years gaining experience. Although I always knew I wanted to work for myself, I felt I needed to build experience first. In 2016 I finally started my business, Vargas Financial Services, while still working full-time. At one point, I was juggling four jobs, including bookkeeping contracts and tax preparation clients, which helped me realize that I would have to choose. I ultimately decided to leave my full-time position at the non-profit in 2018 and focus on growing my own business because I knew that’s what I truly wanted. I like to call myself a social entrepreneur because what I do with my business is in service of others. I think our purpose on earth is to leave a footprint that increases knowledge and allows people to have better lives. In addition to this, I’ve mentored some small businesses throughout the years, and that’s when I noticed an underserved community.

The Young CEO program was born out of a need to address issues like school dropouts and lack of financial education among teenagers. It aims to empower youth through entrepreneurship, creating a pathway to financial stability and generational wealth. We do personal goal setting, budgeting, and credit counseling, then switch to business formation, creating an entity, branding, and things like that. Then, their task is to create a business plan over the 12 weeks they’re in this program. Students will create a business plan while simultaneously building their product or creating a product to sell at graduation. So far, we’ve created 12 real businesses run by teenagers ages 15 to 18, empowering them to continue their education and obtain generational wealth. My work here at Golisano Institute aligns with this mission, as I’m providing students with practical skills and confidence to succeed in a competitive business landscape. When I heard about Golisano Institute, it felt like the parent program of my Young CEO program, so it was a natural fit. It continues the mission of everything I stand for.

2. Describe your role as a Career Educator here at the Golisano Institute. What does a day in the life of Nakia Vargas look like?

My typical day involves co-teaching three to four courses. This quarter, I’m co-teaching two entrepreneurship courses and accounting. I spend my mornings, from 8:45 to 1:00, in class. I’ll interact with students in the cafe area during breaks, maybe even playing basketball with some of them. After class, I grade papers, prepare for the next class, and ensure everything is in order. Even though 105 minutes seems like a long time, it goes by quickly when you’re teaching.

Most of my time outside the classroom is spent planning and preparing for each class. I want to make sure that the students are well-equipped with the knowledge they need to succeed in the real world. They have a short period of time to learn, so it’s important that I make it interactive and engaging enough to stick with them. I also make sure that the content flows seamlessly from one subject to another. For instance, if we just learned about the mindset of entrepreneurship, I’ll make sure they understand how those ties into innovation and business functions. Planning and preparation are extra important because I’m responsible for someone’s education. My goal is to make competent business students, not just certificate holders who have to learn everything on the job. I want my students to have an advantage and be able to stand on their own when they leave the institution.

3. In what ways do you believe that nontraditional approaches in education can benefit students seeking an empowering learning experience?

I didn’t feel I got enough hands-on experience through traditional education. I learned about business and entrepreneurship the hard way. Here at Golisano Institute, we provide hands-on learning in real business environments. We do that with our internships and interactive activities in the classrooms. We give students the practical experience they need to succeed in business, but we also give them the proficiency and knowledge to back it up. It doesn’t matter in business if you have a bachelor’s or master’s, but you can’t balance your QuickBooks. We don’t just want to graduate students; we want to ensure they understand what their books should look like and how to read a financial statement.

4. What can students expect from taking a course with you?

Students can expect a high-energy and engaging learning environment from me, with a little humor. I believe in hands-on learning and pushing students to excel, ensuring they understand the material thoroughly. I have high standards but am also understanding and willing to work with students to help them achieve their best. I’m going to try to pull the best out of them. I’m going to push them. In and out of the classroom, I always aim to create a comfortable, non-judgmental atmosphere, and I’m ready to be a listening ear when needed. Ultimately, I work daily to help students succeed and prepare them for their future careers.

5. What inspired you to focus on accounting and financial literacy?

My mom. I was raised by a single mom of six, sometimes 10, sometimes more or less, because she was the 12th of 12 kids and always cared for her family. At any given time, she would have all six of her children, any neighborhood kids that needed a place to stay, you know, my mom took care of everybody. Never herself, though. Being raised by a single parent, I watched my mom lose her house, her job, and her mom, all in a short period of time, and I was old enough to see the effects of it on her. My mom shielded us from it very well. But when it fell down, it fell down. And I always told myself I’m never going to be in a position where I can’t get out of the hole or figure things out, that I can’t figure out how to be better. So, watching her go through those things lit a fire in me and made me want to learn everything I could about being financially independent. I wanted to make sure I understood the resources out there and the tools I could use to bounce back if life happened to me. It wasn’t that my mom was irresponsible, because she did very well for a single mom of 6 to 10 kids at any time. She had multiple degrees and was educated, but it was just that there were things that should have been put in place to help someone like her.

I’ve seen a lot throughout my own time completing my education, too, and between that experience at the four-year institution I went to and seeing my mom struggle, it was enough to make me be like, you know what, there’s a need out there. I’m going to fill it and I’m going to do everything I need to do to make sure I can fill that need. And that meant going into education and learning about all these resources and these techniques to help teach other people. That meant learning what it took for other people to thrive and survive in ownership of their businesses or even own their own finances in a way where they could create wealth. And that became my thing. It’s just like, I needed to be able to teach other people how to make financial success possible. I don’t want to see others go through what my mom went through in the world.

6. Do you have any memorable experiences or success stories from your work with students or small businesses that you’re particularly proud of?

My biggest personal success story is my children and knowing how well they do in the world. From receiving scholarships to starting their own businesses and getting their own contracts, to the general selflessness and generosity I see in them daily. I’m so proud of my babies. But I call my Young CEOs my babies, too! I have a Young CEO graduate that I still talk to today, and his success has taken him so many places. He’s been on the news. If you walk into any ESL Federal Credit Union, you’ll see a poster of a young African American man with dreads. He sits on their wall. This is a young man raised by a single mom, the first to graduate from high school in his family. He runs two businesses while going to school, and he’s just been asked to be the district manager of a company. I’m so excited for him, and I’m so proud of him. He’s an example of what you can accomplish if you put the energy into your goals. Now, he’s not just an example for his friends and family; he’s a resource. He’s being the change.

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“The opportunity is out there. You just have to find it.

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