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Alumni Spotlight: Jessica Sharp ‘02 Discusses Co-op Success, Communications Career

By Christina Papadopoulos '23

August 30, 2021

The communication industry is dynamic. It’s constantly evolving with each month, each year, each decade — and as communicators, it’s our job to evolve with it. Corporate Communications alumni Jessica Sharp has done this. With a focus on public relations, Sharp spent her three co-op experiences and first four years after graduation building a foundation as a communications professional. Here, she was able to learn her preferences and strengths, eventually garnering enough experience to stake her own claim in the industry.

In 2006, Sharp, along with business partner, Rebecca Devine, opened her own public relations agency, Maven Communications, where Sharp specializes in implementing strategic communications campaigns for a variety of companies. After 15 years, the agency is still going strong.

Sharp feels thankful for her experiences as a Drexel student, crediting the university’s co-op program with guiding her to where she is today. Her success as a communicator and innovator has gained her recognition, most recently being named 2019’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.

Sharp recently answered questions about her past experiences, the responsibilities of a communicator and her favorite parts about the industry.

Headshot of Jessica Sharp

You’re a public relations professional who worked for firms before co-founding Maven Communications, the strategic communication agency where you now serve as Principal. Can you tell me a little more about what your journey and career path has looked like, from Drexel to now?

I graduated Drexel in 2002 from the five-year, three co-op program as a corporate communications major. I was fortunate to have selected that major from the beginning and it worked out. My co-ops were with the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, Independence Blue Cross, and Exelon, all in communications roles. After graduation, I worked for a very small, four-person public relations and advertising agency in Old City that no longer exists. When I left there, I moved to Tierney Communications for about three years, which is also where I met my current business partner. We started Maven Communications together in 2006 — so it’ll be 15 years this year. It’s been fantastic. It started as a very traditional public relations shop, where we mostly did media relations and crisis management and have since evolved our services based on changes in the communications industry. We still do media relations and crisis management, but we also do thought leadership, content marketing, SEO, social media strategy, in-house video and internal communications.

What do you love most about the industry and position you’re in?

What I love most about the industry and what I do is that it’s constantly changing, so I always feel like I’m in school. What I do today is completely different from what I did 15 years ago when we started the company as far as the tools and different technology we can use for clients. The tactics are generally the same when communicating a message from a company to their target audience, but the way we can do that now is almost completely different. If we talk again in a decade, it’s going to be different again. I love that nothing ever stays the same, so you constantly have to be on top of all the new technologies that are available, the economic environment and the environment of the industries your clients are in. You have to understand what’s going on and then how to make it work.

As a small agency owner, I oversee and help to develop strategy with clients. This is my favorite part of what I do. I’m in a wonderful position where I can pick the organizations that we work with. We try to be very mission-driven as much as possible and work with organizations we feel are giving back in a way that they’re not only providing solutions in their industry, but they’re also making an impact in their communities, or in another way that’s meaningful beyond what their products or services are. I am in a very privileged position where I get to decide who we really want to work with, and who we don’t want to work with or support.

What would you consider to be your greatest professional accomplishment?

I don’t know that I have one single accomplishment I can point to. In general, I am very proud that this company is still here 15 years later, and that Rebecca and I have an original partnership, and it’s very strong. We know a lot of folks who started agencies together over the years and not a lot of those agencies are still together. I’m proud that we’ve been able to make it work, and that we’ve been able to get through two major economic incidents. In 2008 and 2009, it was a very tough time, and we lost a lot of clients — but we didn’t lose any employees. We personally took large pay cuts, but we didn’t cut our employees’ salaries. We were able to not only make it through that, but it made us stronger and smarter. More recently, with the pandemic, we were able to pivot quickly to address the new needs of our clients. 2020 ended up being a strong year for us, despite everything. In both cases, we were able to work together with our clients to figure out the best ways to move forward successfully. They inherently trust what we’re recommending to them and know that we know their business and have their best interests at heart. Our strong client relationships are a big reason our business is still running strong 15 years later. Where we are right now is the result of a series of strategic decisions that have led to our continued success.

In the communication industry, we’ve been so lucky to not only learn and adapt our technologies, but to be able to continue our work amidst the pandemic. It was a learning experience we’ll never be able to replicate. It’s so good to hear you were able to take that and come out stronger because of it.

Yes, and we have the benefit of being in professional services, which is a sector that wasn’t as negatively impacted during this time. There’s luck in that, and our history in doing crisis communication and crisis management helped a lot. You can’t freak out. You have to just stay calm, take a look at what’s going on, and put a plan together to move forward and execute it. Then, you need to be flexible because it’s going to change a bunch of different times. I’m not going to say we didn’t freak out a couple times, but overall, we were okay. We adapted.

How did your experiences and education at Drexel help you get to where you are today?

I attribute Drexel and the co-op program to where I am. I would not be where I am today without having gone through the program. Leaving high school and going to college, I had no real idea of what I wanted to do or even what I was really good at, and it was only through Drexel and the co-op program that I got to have the experiences where I could make these informed decisions.

Each of my co-ops were different, and that’s what I always recommend when I’m talking to students at Drexel — if they have the opportunity to do three different co-ops, do it. It’s one of the only times in your life where you have a finite amount of time that you can work for one type of company, get everything out of it that you can, the good and the bad, and then work for a totally different type of company, and learn from that, too.

With each co-op I had, I learned what I liked and what I didn’t like, both about the industry and the tasks I was doing, but also about corporate culture, and other things you don’t typically get exposed to without an internship. It was during my last co-op in the communications department at Exelon that I was exposed to working with outside PR and advertising agencies. In my first two co-ops I only worked on the corporate side. When I got a glimpse into what agencies were like, I noticed how much fun they were having. Through IBX and Exelon I knew that I didn’t want to work for a large, bureaucratic corporation. I realized I wanted to work on the agency side, and that’s kind of what led me to this. At the same time, it was nice to have those big brand names on my resume when I was applying for agencies, especially since I knew the inside already, which was helpful.

Is there a specific course or person at Drexel that influenced you the most during your undergraduate career?

There’s one professor who’s still there — Ron Bishop. He’s the teacher that you want to do well for. You feel like you’re disappointing him if you don’t try your hardest to do your best, or if you don’t put your all in. It’s not so much for the grade, it’s because you don’t want to disappoint him. He was a good resource. He was somebody who you could throw ideas around with, related to his course or even just in general. We’re still in touch.

Do you have any favorite memories from your time at Drexel?

I actually met my husband at Drexel — and as a side note, he still works for his co-op to this day. We lived in Calhoun Hall our freshman year, and our core group of friends that we still hang out with today are mostly friends from college.

I was also on the crew team my freshman and sophomore years and have some great memories from that time, as well as some good life lessons. It’s because of those early morning practices that I’m still a morning person!

If you could give advice to current students or recent graduates, what would it be?

Remember that all the connections and folks that you know now in school, and even people from the co-ops that you’re working for, are all your future network. Right now, everybody’s kind of entry level, but at some point, these are going to be the decision makers who are going to potentially be important for your career. There are a fair amount of people I either met through a co-op or had a class with that I kept in touch with. Many of those people are now the decision makers in companies that either refer us business or are potential clients. It wouldn’t have occurred to me at 20 years old that these people would be important for my career moving forward, but business development and career advancement is all about staying in touch with people. And it’s so much easier now! LinkedIn didn’t exist when I was at Drexel.

Something else that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is our role and responsibility specifically as communicators. Especially when it comes to topics that are meaningful, like social justice, or the environment. As somebody working in a public relations agency, my job is to basically communicate the best message possible for my clients. For a long time, I did my job, and I did it well — but I didn’t necessarily think about what impact it was making beyond helping my clients. Recently I’ve been thinking more about what more my clients could be doing for the greater good, and my responsibility to push them to do more. Over the past year and especially the summer of 2020, when companies were putting out statements about equality and Black Lives Matter, so many of these statements were just lip service. Yes, it’s great that you’re acknowledging inequality and racism — but what are you doing about it? So, in this past year, we’ve really tried to push our clients to put their money where their mouth is. We won’t put out a statement for them if they aren’t going to meet it and show up.

It’s our responsibility to check people sometimes, and we can do that because we’re communicating for them. We can make people think a little bit about why they’re saying what they’re saying, or what they want to do and what they're going to do. If they're only saying something because they must or because someone told them to, it’s not good enough. As communicators, we have the power to be able to shape somebody’s voice and share it — so we must be responsible with it and push people and organizations to do better.

Learn more about the Department of Communication at Drexel.