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Student Spotlight: Nicole Perone, Graduating in December, But Not Your Typical Undergraduate Majoring in Marketing

By Keith Morelli

Nicole Perone

TAMPA (August 16, 2017) -- For some 20 years, Nicci Perone's path was her own. She started, built up and ran Bella Studios and Bella Coatings. She hand-painted signs – even billboards – and then expanded into custom painting, decorative finishing and specialty plaster work on high-end homes and businesses.

It was her life and she loved it. It was paying her way and keeping her three daughters fed, clothed and sheltered, which is no inexpensive task. Then, in 2014, a car accident abruptly changed her life's trajectory. An injured back made it too difficult for her to work her trade and she was faced with the difficult decision of shutting down her business. She finished up her contracts, but took no new jobs. She had to let her crews go, sell all her equipment to make ends meet and wave goodbye to that comfortable era in her life. All this left her at a crossroads, with no signs of where to go next.

"It was all I had known for 20 years," she says. "This was something I loved doing. I loved my business. It kept me excited to get up every morning. It really hurt, but I came to the decision of having to close it down. It was time to move on and I had to ask myself, 'What am I going to do for the rest of my life?'"

Many would have shrugged, taken a job elsewhere, scratching out an existence, settling for less. But Nicci saw an opportunity and took that first step into a new life, accepting that formidable challenge.

In December, at the young-but-seasoned age of 49, she will graduate from the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business with a bachelor's degree in marketing with a concentration in entrepreneurship. Her grade-point average: 3.97.

"I saw a perfect opportunity back then to go back to school," she says. "It wasn't easy. I'm a single mom with three kids."

Her daughters, Giavanna, 20, herself a budding artist who takes classes at Hillsborough Community College; Sophia, 19, who works in the food service industry and Olivia, 17, who begins her senior year in high school this fall, all are behind their mom's decision to return to school. She's proud of them and the feeling is mutual.

"Everything I do is with them in mind," Nicci says. "I always want to be a good role model for them and show them that you should never give up on your dreams and never stop reaching for your goals."

So, she began taking business classes, first at HCC and then at the Muma College of Business. At times, she still misses her entrepreneurial life, she says, but this new direction is invigorating. She has no regrets about where she is heading.

"I believe that everything happens for a reason," she says.

That's not to say it been an easy choice. Initially, there were plenty of moments filled with doubt.

"It was pretty scary," she says. "I guess it was that fear of the unknown mostly; fear of being older than everybody around me. Plus, there was a fear of not being in school for some 20 years. I knew it was going to be a challenge.

"But, it's been great, honestly," she says. "One goal was to change my perspective, to open up different worlds and that has happened. It's just fantastic."

She also brings some of her own business knowledge and experience to her classes, being a former business owner who made payroll each week and who constantly had to keep an eye on revenues and expenditures.

It finally has all come together. She is now on the verge of a new life, a fresh-faced graduate embarking on a new career. She hopes one day to own her own company again, perhaps to develop a product and bring it to market.

"Product development is an exciting concept for me," she says, "I would love to create again, to come up with something and take it to market. I have no doubt that one day, I will make that happen."

No one who knows Nicci has any doubts either: She can and will accomplish whatever she sets out to do.

The recipient of thousands of dollars in scholarship money, Nicci has been asked to deliver a speech at this year's Muma College of Business Scholarship Luncheon on Aug. 25. Though she's nervous about getting up in front of a large audience and candidly talking about her life, she's grateful to tackle yet another opportunity outside of her comfort zone.

"Growth and success don't happen where you're comfortable," she says. "You've got to push yourself, step out of your own box and sometimes do the things that scare you. That's where you will find the greatest success."