Dividends Magazine, 2023-24 Edition
By Carolanne Roberts
Justin E. Samuels certainly knew his way around the Mississippi State University campus—that happens when declaring 10 majors along the way and earning 190 credit hours, 70 past what’s needed to graduate. To say Samuels wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life is a given. To say he eventually found his home in the College of Business is a happy reality.
"I was a chemistry major first—I've always been a numbers guy," says Connecticut-born Samuels, a 2015 graduate. "Then I switched to a foreign language and on to hospitality, from hospitality to business, business to nutrition, back to business, and even time in culinology, which is the science of the kitchen. But I kept gravitating back to business."
After all those academic forays along the way, Samuels admits he still didn't know his true direction.
“One day, I happened to walk past a recruiting poster for the College of Business enticing people to learn to code—which I already knew in the GeoCities & Myspace era. I signed up for Business Information Services, and suddenly I was happy and at home,” he says. “For the first time in my life, I had a 3.8 GPA, and I knew this: I wanted to be a software engineer."
Today he works as a senior software engineer in the Campaign Builder/Automations sector at Intuit Mailchimp, an Atlanta-based international company managing business campaigns, mailing lists and expanded business analytics.
"We are actually real-life ‘Harry Potters’—if you think of it, we can make it happen. We are real magicians,” says Samuels. “I'm very proud to be both an engineer and the founder-CEO of a tech conference."
About that tech conference—it's huge and growing, The first RenderATL conference designed by Samuels brought together software engineers, emphasizing inclusion and opportunity for Black, Asian and female demographics in particular. After a pandemic hiatus, the second RenderATL grew to address project managers, designers, coders, and more tech professionals in business or technical professions. A series of pop-up spinoffs adds to RenderATL's annual summer event in Georgia.
"This all started when I realized I was the only Black person at a conference I attended," Samuels says. "We needed to build something inclusive of everyone—and now people have found a place with us.
"At our events, you get the best education possible from industry-leading experts, networking with some of the biggest Fortune 500 global companies. You're never judged on your outward appearance. Dress the way you want—we even have theme days—and eat really good food (because half of our team comes from island cultures, we have a heavy Caribbean influence). Our signature educational pop-up series is called the Collards and Code Tour; it focuses on networking for technology professionals while being authentic to the culture of the particular city we're touring at the time—Miami, Austin, D.C. or New York City, for example."
Samuels himself is authentic—and already recognized for his contributions. Just this year he's been listed on Atlanta's Inc.'s “Atlanta 30 Under 30(ish)” list. He was also chosen for Atlanta's Most Influential 500 list by Atlanta Magazine. For his part, Samuels says, "I want to be great, but in truth, I just want everything to go well. I know it sounds cliché, but I'm always trying to beat who I was yesterday."
That concept reaches back to his days at Mississippi State. While he was exploring majors, Samuels embraced campus life.
"I'm founder of the video games club [now under the auspices of MSU Esports Association] because nobody had started that when I arrived in 2010," he explains, "I grew that pretty big and also joined Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. I was involved in the Association for Computing, did Maroon VIP for a couple of years, and worked on campus in an art gallery. I was grinding hard."
Looking back, Samuels wonders where he would've landed had his father not brought random computers home for his son.
"We're talking 1997-2000, and I immediately had a predisposition to them. Having those put me light years ahead of my peers. When I got to college, I saw people struggling with keyboards and typing while I had mastered it all years before," he says.
Samuels still pushes himself hard, learning, achieving and breaking boundaries, sometimes to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. However, he's developed a solution called “micro burning.”
"I've learned you need to disconnect your brain from everything else, and that's where recovery happens," he explains. "This takes your attention off the demands at hand."
One example, says the non-gardener, is gardening. "I have fond memories of my mom trying to get me in the garden," he continues. "I do not have a green thumb, and I can't tell you the names of the plants and flowers I have—I just asked my lawn guy to buy me some plants—but maintaining them helps me escape the burnout."
Of course, being Justin Samuels, he's also taking the “micro burning” concept to higher levels, literally.
"I've always had a natural inclination to airplanes despite the fact that I have a fear of heights. I don't even like to fly as a passenger," he says, "But I always say the best way to face your fears is to experience them, so my goal is to learn to fly a plane."
Meanwhile, on the ground, Samuels continues celebrating his Mississippi State connection, even in Atlanta. "The VP of Engineering at Mailchimp is an MSU grad," he says. "Of the 30 people on our RenderATL conference team, I'd say 12 of us went to school at State." And all seem to be on the same wavelength.
"We work together to achieve inclusion," says Samuels of one of his top themes. "We give people an opportunity by helping them be exposed to things that are out there. We’ve proudly helped hundreds of attendees land new opportunities for their careers and help employers connect with the best talent to meet their product demands.
"Though our offshoot, called Render Restores, we also go around trying to help folks learn code. We are working with the Morris Brown College Foundation to go out into the community, helping business owners learn skills to take their companies to the next level."
Samuels knows that his success comes from within—and from the years of growing and learning at his alma mater. "When I pulled into Starkville, I had never even seen the campus," he recalls. "I hadn't had the campus tour; I didn't know where anything was. At that time, I didn't have goals. I was just enjoying life. When I finally found BIS, I formed a new plan. I knew I had to finish and get out into the world."
To this day, when he lifts his head from work demands present and future, Samuels treasures his college experience.
"I just love telling people I am a Mississippi State graduate. That experience helped me be where I am today, and I'm forever proud to wrap everything I do in Maroon and White."