Nicholas DiFranco distinctly remembers reading an article a few years ago that completely changed his career perspective. “I want to be on this side of the biomedical engineering world,” he remembers thinking.
The piece detailed the artificial heart that two doctors and an engineer created. It was expected to be the best on the market—and had the potential to save lives.
But DiFranco didn’t necessarily want to be the one in the lab—despite being a biomedical engineering student at CWRU at the time. Instead, he wanted to be the one bringing medical devices to market, working at the intersection of business and technology.
And so, the summer after his junior year, he got an early start in Case Western Reserve University’s Master of Engineering and Management (MEM) program, a degree program offered through a collaboration between the Case School of Engineering and the Weatherhead School of Management.
Recently, DiFranco, who will graduate from the MEM program in the spring, got another step closer to working at that intersection when he was selected for the Richards Fellowship, which seeks out a top student in the MEM program each year.
Donald J. Richards (CIT ‘79, MGT ’81), a retired managing director at Accenture and member of the university’s Board of Trustees, endowed the annual fellowship to help provide students with financial assistance to defray the cost of tuition and to give them coaching and guidance for their future careers.
“I have been amazingly blessed,” Richards said, “and it’s an obligation and joy to use my resources to help people.”
DiFranco had the opportunity to network with Richards and other consultants at Accenture, which provides services in strategy, consulting, digital, technology and operations. The fellowship carries a monetary award, which varies from year to year
Already, DiFranco has met with Richards to discuss his experiences and interests and to learn more about consulting as a career.
“To be a consultant, you have to understand the technical jargon, you have to be able to look at technical problems and speak the language, but ultimately, you’re going into an organization to try to make change happen,” he said. “It goes hand-in-hand. All the skills you need for [consulting] go along with the skills you need to decide strategic direction.”
For now, DiFranco will continue working toward his degree and interning at Lubrizol LifeSciences, a position the MEM program helped him secure.
After interning at Lubrizol Corp. in strategic intelligence for a few months, where he wrote reports for managers on major world events that could impact their products, DiFranco got a class assignment to interview someone whose career he hoped to emulate.
His choice: Deb Langer, vice president of LifeSciences at Lubrizol.
At the end of the interview, Langer offered him an internship. The opportunity aligned more closely with his future goals, so he transitioned into her office in September 2015.
There, he’s conducted market research on products being developed—from implants to reduce narcotics addiction to topical treatments to improve drug delivery.
Get to know DiFranco better in this week’s five questions.
1. Who has been your most influential mentor?
My dad. I’m sure a lot of people say this, but my dad’s the smartest person I know. It’s not because he has a degree from CWRU and he’s an engineer. It has a lot to do with his background. He grew up in an immigrant household where they didn’t have a lot, and so whenever he wanted something—whether is was an education or money—he had to work for it. I feel grateful that I have a great support network around me. I’ve had my parents always advocating for me. They were advisers throughout all of my education.
2. What was your first job?
I worked at a place called Gale’s Garden Center—it’s down the road from where I grew up in Mayfield Village. I was actually in the greenhouse, dealing with the plants and customers.
Day one [as a sophomore in high school], I walked into the greenhouse and I had no idea anything about flowers or plants. They just had me watering plants in the beginning—just basically making sure nothing died.
Customers would come up to me and would say, “Well I have a sunny yard, but I’m also looking for something the deer won’t eat—what should I get?” I would just shrug and point to my boss.
After the first weekend I worked there, I went to the library and got all of these gardening books and read them like crazy. I learned which plants like sun, which plants like shade, and eventually I learned enough so I was able to answer those questions.
3. Who is your favorite author?
I don’t know if I could pick a favorite author, but my favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird [by Harper Lee]. I’ve read that three times. There’s also a book called Summerland by Michael Chabon. It’s about this kid—he’s an outcast—and his dad gets taken by this evil character. He basically goes through this journey of gathering a baseball team of these mythical creatures; it’s like a fantasy world. His journey is really cool, and by the end of the book, he plays a baseball game to save the world and his dad. I really like the writing style, for sure.
4. How do you like to spend your time when you’re away from school and/or work?
I’ve played guitar since I was 6 years old, so music is a huge part of my life. I hurt my hand recently, so I haven’t played in a while, but I’m hoping to get back into it now.
Other than that, I garden now; I picked that up since I worked that first job.
I also do the Insanity [workout] program. I love doing that. Getting out and playing sports, I’m always down to do that.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
My favorite thing about CWRU is the community around it. I love the people here and the fact you can walk down the road to one of the best botanical gardens or art museums in the country. You can go see the orchestra. If you’re a young professional, there’s amazing networking opportunities. There’s the BioEnterprise Building for startups, the hospitals—the opportunities around us here at CWRU are out of this world.
I’ve grown up in Cleveland, so I’ve seen how it’s been rebuilt throughout my lifetime. Right now, given all that’s happened, I think there isn’t a better time to be in Cleveland as a college student or a recent graduate.