From Brooklyn to Elkin, UNCSA alumni forge their own entrepreneurial paths

As a young girl in Brooklyn, New York, alumna Dwana Smallwood knew she was a dancer, but she never dreamed she would become a business owner. “The language I speak is dance,” says the dancer, choreographer and educator who founded Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center in the neighborhood where she grew up. The word “entrepreneur” didn’t register, even as she designed and sewed T- shirts, created custom dolls, and braided hair to pay for dance classes.

T. Oliver “Tim” Reid (B.M. Music ’93) was practically born performing in Gastonia, North Carolina. While at UNCSA, he had enough savvy to supplement his classical voice degree with dance and acting classes to create his own customized training program for musical theater. “It’s part of my DNA,” he says. “I have to be creative, and I have to be a strong leader.”

Louis Jeroslow (B.F.A. Design & Production ’95) arrived at UNCSA with a wide range of interests developed through arts magnet schooling in Miami, Florida. While Design and Production focused his future, his insatiable desire for knowledge set the stage for an extraordinarily varied career, from Blue Man Group to winemaking.

Since discovering theater in a sixth-grade writing assignment, Sean Murray (B.F.A. Drama ’89) nurtured a goal of becoming an actor. After earning his degree, he spent the next 14 years collecting accolades as an actor, director and producer. Determined to take ownership of his career trajectory, Murray and his husband, Bill Schmidt, formed the award-winning Cygnet Theatre in San Diego, California, near where Murray grew up.

While their experiences are unique, these four alumni share characteristics that are common among successful entrepreneurs, according to Iris Cole, who teaches a course for the new academic minor in entrepreneurship that is offered by the Division of Liberal Arts. These characteristics include vision; creativity; people, team and partnership building; resiliency; and a growth mindset, she says. And the alumni agree that those traits — if not born at UNCSA — were definitely nurtured in the conservatory environment.  

After studying in the contemporary dance program at UNCSA, Smallwood became a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 12 years. During that time, she appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” after which she was asked by Oprah herself to become the architect of the dance program at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. She spent four years there. While in South Africa, Smallwood had an “aha” moment that led to the next phase in her career. “That was where I came closer to finding my purpose,” she said. Smallwood felt called to give back to the neighborhood she had grown up in by opening her own dance school. “Brooklyn had given so much to me. And I wanted not just to give back but to say thank you. I’m not sure where I would be if that neighborhood had not supported my dreams.”  

Dwana Smallwood

Dwana Smallwood helped to develop the dance program for the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

In 2013, after returning from the Winfrey Academy, Smallwood followed her vision by establishing a nonprofit organization and then searching for a facility in Brooklyn. After one look at a 4,000-square-foot loft with soaring ceilings, skylights and huge windows, she knew she had found her creative home. “I knew this had to be an arts space,” she says of the former stone-and-granite business. “I knew I could build a space here where kids could feel safe, be free from bullying and relax in the lobby.”

Smallwood recalls helping organize an international tour for the School of Dance while at UNCSA. Advanced dancers learned how to assemble dance floors and to set up lights, and then traveled to Europe, taking classes and performing alongside their peers in Germany, England and Scotland. “I was gathering all the things needed, pulling all the details together. You have to be prepared for anything and be ready to change on a dime,” she says. “I went so many places I never thought I would go, and met so many people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”  

She says that was good training for starting a business. “Nothing is ever what it seems. So you adjust, you adapt.” 

Reid started flexing his entrepreneurial muscles while a student, connecting with peers and campus leaders to organize, finance and produce an all-student production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”  

Since graduating, Reid has spent 20 years on Broadway, most recently in the Tony Award-winning “Hadestown” and “Once on This Island.” He also created and produced his own cabaret show, “Drop Me Off In Harlem.” Now he is flexing those same entrepreneurial muscles as a founder of Black Theatre Coalition, aimed at removing the “illusion of inclusion” in American theater. The coalition works to reshape the ecosystem for Black theater professionals who have been marginalized by systemically racist and biased ideology.

T. Oliver Reid

T. Oliver "Tim" Reid performs at an opening night gala for the New York Cabaret Convention.

Reid says he never thought of the performing arts as anything but entrepreneurial. “It requires all the skills you have as a performer — music, dancing, acting — plus people skills and communications, being able to fundraise and express your ideas to get attention,” he says. “UNCSA is great for that because there are so many people with different skills and knowledge, some of the brightest minds.”  

While Jeroslow focused on Design and Production’s lighting program, he took extra classes in welding, technical direction, set construction and drawing. “I took every class they would let me into,” he says. “I wanted to absorb everything I could fill my head with.” His driven pursuit of knowledge fueled a career that has encompassed — often simultaneously — touring with rock bands; building and managing show components for Blue Man Group; flipping houses; teaching helicopter pilots; and making wine as a partner at Elkin Creek Vineyard, creators of award-winning European-style wines in North Carolina’s Piedmont region.  

Louis Jeroslow

Louis Jeroslow is co-owner of Elkin Creek Vineyard.

Jeroslow says UNCSA was instrumental in teaching him problem-solving and collaboration, two critical skill sets of an entrepreneur. “You have to leave your ego at the door in a collaborative environment,” he says. “Everyone is bringing ideas to the table, and the point is to find the best outcome for the project.”

At UNCSA, Murray learned to be versatile. “We weren’t taught just one way of working. We were given a lot of different options,” he says. “I left with a lot of threads I then wove together to find my own way.” As an actor in training, he was required to learn about costume design, set construction, lighting and other crafts. “I loved it,” he said. “Not everyone did. I couldn’t get enough, and now, 20 years later, I tap into those skills every day.”  

Sean Murray

Sean Murray stars in "On the 20th Century" at Cygnet Theatre.

He also learned to take risks, which helped him take the leap to found Cygnet Theatre. “It was terrifying. We had no idea what it would take, but we took a deep breath and we went for it,” he says. Cygnet has grown from a startup theater organization in a strip mall storefront with an annual budget of $20,000 to an organization with a 246-seat theater in the arts district and a budget of $3 million. “When you produce something yourself, you are responsible for its success,” he says. “You can’t blame someone else if it doesn’t succeed, but you don’t have to wait for someone else to approve what you are doing or making.”  

Like artists and entrepreneurs across the globe, these alumni faced a big problem in 2020: how to keep their dreams alive during a pandemic that caused so many organizations to cancel, suspend or severely curtail operations for more than a year. Conservatory-instilled resilience helped them pivot and power through.  

With performance opportunities limited and his passion fueled by the death of George Floyd, Reid focused on his Black Theatre Coalition (BTC), determined that when Broadway reopens, there will be opportunities for all. “There were no Black general managers working on Broadway when 
it shut down,” he says, adding, “Less than one percent of Black artists working in theater will make it to Broadway.”  

Through its apprentices, fellowships and workshops, BTC advocates for inclusive hiring practices on Broadway and throughout professional theater and is working to make sure that artists of color are ready when opportunity knocks. Reid’s five-year plan calls for a 500% increase in Black performers working at the top level of their fields.  

Across the country, Murray has used the past year to indulge one of his passions: supporting the work of new playwrights, particularly writers from underrepresented populations. Cygnet has offered online readings of new plays by Black and Asian writers. “We weren’t going to do something just to be doing something,” he says. “We were only going to do something that was meaningful to us and supported our vision.”

Passion was also the lifeline for Smallwood’s organization. “I watched institutions and businesses devastated,” Smallwood says. “I was fearful, but I could not embrace that as my fate.” With classes moved online and her dream “surviving, but on life support,” she turned again to the neighborhood that had always supported her. Parents and donors came through, and she was able to eventually open her doors for hybrid instruction, retaining her staff of 14. She has spent the year writing grant proposals at the rate of two per week, creating videos to market her programs, and planning for the next emergency.  

UNCSA gave me the tools I’ve needed to meet any challenge. That’s been the case all along, and it’s true now.

Louis Jeroslow

A sigh of relief — both hesitant and triumphant — is in her voice as she asks, “Did I just make it through that?”  There is no hesitation for Jeroslow in describing how he and his many ventures have survived. “UNCSA gave me the tools I’ve needed to meet any challenge,” he says. “That’s been the case all along, and it’s true now.”

New minor offers training in arts entrepreneurship

In today’s increasingly complex and competitive economic environment, possessing the ability to identify, create and execute entrepreneurial ideas that are outside of the traditional performance space is crucial. UNCSA undergraduates can now minor in arts entrepreneurship, gaining the tools, resources and confidence to create opportunities for themselves in the shifting landscape of the arts and entertainment industries.

The 15-credit-hour minor — the first of its kind at UNCSA — is designed to provide students the opportunity to explore and gather experience in a variety of areas related to the business aspects of the arts, including personal finance, basic business and economics, negotiation skills, and developing an entrepreneurial mindset and spirit. Graduates will also benefit from learning how to seek funding for new creative endeavors from both traditional and nontraditional sources. 


by Lauren Whitaker

This article appeared in the 2021 issue of Scene.

July 20, 2021