January 31, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 25°F


Entrepreneur and chair of trustees offers advice to students

Tom Grape ’80, entrepreneur and chair of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees, gave students some advice: to follow your passion, take risks and always give back to your community.

Grape addressed more than 60 faculty and students in the Business School on Tuesday night during a discussion titled “An Entrepreneur’s Journey and Lessons Learned.”

In his presentation, Grape discussed 10 key points he has valued over his career and talked about how he got his start after graduation. After putting together his own major and graduating with a degree in planned studies and marketing, Grape went to work for Procter & Gamble Co., marketing Pampers Diapers and Bounty paper towels. In 1984, he joined a real estate developer, Spaulding & Slye, and in 1996, he made his first attempt to start his own company and failed.

“Whatever money I had, I lost, and I discovered at that time that I really was an entrepreneur, because despite that setback, I wanted to start my own company,” Grape said. “Even after I failed my first time out, as most entrepreneurs do by the way, I wanted to do it again.”

Grape started his current company, Benchmark Senior Living, in 1997. The company has been named one of the “top places to work” by The Boston Globe.

“I started with a business plan and an office with just me, and now we have 4,500 employees, $300 million in revenue and the company’s done very well,” Grape said.

His presentation centered on 10 lessons that he has learned throughout his career, such as: sell yourself to prospective employers, never quit, solicit advice from everyone, have an impact and give back. In 2007, for the company’s 10-year anniversary, Benchmark Senior Living started an employee grant program called One Company Fund, which gives grants to employees in crisis.

Senior Eva Ward said as graduation is imminent, it’s good to hear what’s in the job market. Ward said Grape’s story about his career and the One Company Fund was great to hear.

“He changed so many times,” Ward said. “He did fail a couple times, and he’s still successful now in the long run. And what’s also great to hear is programs where companies are being active [for their employees] by themselves rather than forced into it by a government agency.”

Grape said Benchmark started the fund because it was the right thing to do, not because they wanted to get credit for helping people.

“The fact that we’re sitting in this room today, we’re all blessed, and we’re all fortunate, because a lot of people in the world, a lot of people in society [are not], and it’s incumbent on all of us, I believe, to give back,” Grape said.

Junior Matthew McDonough said even though he isn’t sure about his own career, Grape’s presentation had some useful advice for students seeking to become entrepreneurs.

“It was very good. Most importantly, I learned a lot about what it takes to be an entrepreneur — setting your own agenda, always seeking help, those kinds of things were very helpful,” McDonough said.