Zachary Bell

Co-Founder/Owner, Bell Media Group

What brought you to RACC?

I did very poorly in high school. To be honest, it was very much a challenge for me. But on the other side of the coin, I was very gifted in athletics. I was All-State in water polo in high school and in my senior year I had been All-American. I was ranked top 40 in the nation, but, to be very transparent, my GPA was like a 2.2. I was getting offers from all these colleges, and they'd see what my GPA was. And they'd say, we can flex, but we can't work with that. So, I ended up landing at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. They're a Division Two school and I had a great time. But it was very clear pretty quickly that the standards that were in effect for most colleges were there for a reason. Within my first year, I realized very quickly that it was extremely challenging for me.

So, my first year and my second year didn't go too well. Then by my second year, I started to have seizures at the college. The only thing that was really holding me together was playing water polo. By the time I was in my junior year, I was still having seizures. I had a seizure the day before water polo season opened, and got sent to the hospital. And since I had so many seizures prior, the hospital actually called the athletic director. They said it's a real big risk if he plays. If he has a seizure in the pool, he's going to die. So, then the athletic director brought me into the office. He told me that he appreciated everything I did for the school in terms of reputation and playing athletics, but I couldn't play. He still gave me the scholarship for junior year. He said that if I was able to play by my senior year, I'd get the scholarship again. So, I always tell people, my junior year was probably the worst year of my life, because I'm very much a team-oriented person. I didn't get to practice with the team, play with the team, or do anything like that. And I kind of went on a downhill slope. I didn't get better and I was still having seizures. So, I didn't finish at Mercyhurst, but I came home.

I was actually looking to go to Alvernia, but none of my major courses transferred to Alvernia. So, they basically told me, I was going to be starting as a freshman except for my Gen Ed courses. So, I was absolutely broken.

I basically started all over again and went to RACC. And it was a great decision. When I went to Mercyhurst it was very much a weeding out process. They said that there would be a certain amount of people who don't make these programs, and they're not going to be here anymore. And when I went to RACC, it felt much more like everybody's working together to get me through the program. It was much more of the support that I felt like I needed. And your learning disability program at the time was extraordinary.

Tomma Lee Furst who worked in Disability Services was probably my biggest advocate. So, it was just a lot of comfort, and it was very easy to transition from Mercyhurst to RACC. But I felt like RACC gave me so much more support. I really can't say enough about Tomma Lee too. She was beyond an advocate. She was somebody when I was down, I could go there, I could talk to her. She'd say don't give up. So, it was just a very fostering and inclusive environment. Mercyhurst was ranked nationally in disabilities services as well, and they had such a robust program. Coming to RACC, I just felt like it was extremely similar. There was so much care and understanding that if I went to a teacher and I said I have accommodations, there was no push back. it was very comfortable for me.

How did your experience at RACC shape your career path?

Marlene Fares, who was in charge of career development at RACC, was the person who got me my first real job. Marlene was such a big advocate. I graduated from RACC in business, but I'd always felt this really strong compulsion to get a massage certification. When I was a high school sophomore, I had a shoulder injury, and the only two options were to get rotator cuff surgery and sit out the entire year, or I could go to see this massage therapist. And like every other man in Berks County, I was opting for the surgeon because the massage therapist was who my mom used to go to. And she would say, you know, you've got to check him out. So, I went to a couple sessions with this guy, and, not only did he get my shoulder better, but there was muscle gain. I thought if this guy can help me, I can probably help a ton of people. So, when I was 18, my senior year, he started to teach me very basic massage techniques. After I graduated from RACC I went to massage school and got my accreditation after six months. Then I started my first business ever - my own home-based massage business. It ran for about six years. While I was doing that, I took classes in the Alvernia adult education program at night.

The person who I was prior to having epilepsy didn't care about school at all. It was 100% focus on sports. I was very much the person who couldn't care less about going to class, but if I lost the game, I was losing my mind. And as soon as I began having seizures, my entire paradigm really shifted. I enjoyed playing sports, but I wasn't aggressive anymore. And now on the other end of the spectrum, I began to love learning, and I never loved learning before. So, I always feel like I missed out a little bit because in high school, I didn't care at all. And most of the years in college, I didn't care at all. But any chance I get now to learn, I really capture the moment. Because whatever happened after epilepsy, it really kind of changed who I was, and it made me so much more appreciative of learning. So, I think. epilepsy to me has been a blessing because it gave me time to go through some really difficult things. But on the other end, I think I'm coming out a better person, essentially, because I'm looking to help people and I'm looking to be not as selfish as I was prior to having epilepsy.

After Alvernia I actually decided to go get a master's degree in acupuncture. I was thinking, I'm already doing massage, so why not do acupuncture too. And I started a program, but it was really the antithesis of going to RACC. They didn't follow any ADA guidelines, they didn't care that I had learning disabilities, they were doing things their way. So after about a year, I ended up leaving the three-year program. I continued my massage business, and although it was very amateur in terms of a business, I had a very good book going, and I was making pretty good money in that. And I had never worked a corporate job. I've never worked any job other than massage, which is really like working at the beach.

But I was just getting so frustrated that the people who would say “this hurts” would say they didn't have time when I would tell them that all you have to do is work on it for about five minutes a day. I'm thinking how is that possible. So, I said to the people who didn't want to do it, I can't be your massage therapist. I was actually my own worst enemy. And it was probably the worst thing ever because I eliminated 75% of my book, and that's not great for business. Very amateur business move. After that, it just went on the downslope and I really needed to get a real job because I'm bringing in about 200 bucks a week and that's not really covering the expenses.

So, I hooked up with Marlene Fares in RACC's Career Services right away who helped me up land new jobs including at an addiction treatment center and at a manufacturing plant office. I got laid off from the plant, but after about six months I found my first real job with Penske truck leasing. I started off working in the billing department, and then I was taken on a pilot initiative. We had about 30 people in the department, and we were transforming the department from billing to supporting sales. Essentially, we were account managers. So, I did that for about two years, but I would continually ask for more responsibility. I wanted to grow very, very quickly there. I ended up leaving, and I went to a small company, the best company I've ever worked for. They really were extremely accommodating, very flexible. But it was a similar situation, again, where they told me the role I was going to be doing. And then the role I was going to be doing was about half of that responsibility. So, I constantly bring it up to them and say, I want to do more. I really wanted to get into marketing because I want to see the marriage between marketing and sales. And this is a $25 million company that never marketed ever. They never even sent an email out, really. So, I said, you know, I just want to jumpstart this and see what we can do. And they were a little slower to warm up on that front. So, I just said I know I can do this.

And then I started a company. We ended up starting with a resume company to try to help people get into schools, because I had had so many different jobs at that point, that we really knew what the process looked like. And then we transformed that into a digital marketing agency because we had so many people reach out to us and tell us that we made fantastic material, we had great copy. We just started to get hooked up with local associations, and those associations would funnel businesses our way. Then by last June, we probably had about ten clients. I would go to work in the morning, come home and work on the ten clients. Kira, my fiancée and co-founder, would do that as well. She worked at the Caron treatment center as a marketing specialist. By June we had enough clients that I could come full time for the business, and then by December Kira could as well. Now we both work full-time for the business.

I think the biggest things that RACC provided are - number one - RACC is so much more like real life experience than going to a Mercyhurst because they talk about concepts and real applications. I went to RACC for a business degree, but then I went through three levels of the mechatronics program as well. And it was just such a cool thing because that was exactly how I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn in the morning and then apply all the information that I learned in the morning at night. So, to me, that's really the benefit of RACC. And it's not just specific to the mechatronics program. It's also specific to all the other programs, you can see what you're learning today and how it's going to impact you in real life tomorrow. And then I think the second thing is the network of RACC people that are in my life all the time. I have built relationships now that serve me to this day, and enrich my career and my life. It's such a rich combination of not only getting the education, but then having the people to fall back on if you need some additional advice as well.

What advice/insight would you give to current RACC students?

I think my best words of wisdom may be more for the 18-year old, just because I didn't know this. But I think number one, before you go through the entire process of finding a major, think about it and think if this is something I'm going to enjoy doing the rest of my life. And I think on the back end of that is going out there and getting that real-life experience. Because so many times I thought that I should get a degree in coding or something like that. And the reality is that if you're a coder, you're going to be at your computer ten hours a day. And if you're someone who's dynamic and you want to be outside, then you may really enjoy technology, but you may not enjoy technology in that particular scenario.

I also thought, when I got a degree, every door in the world was going to open up to me and I can apply for any job. But, it's just really not that situation. You have to make sure that what you're going for really encompasses what you're passionate about. Our business makes okay money for a one-year business, but we have no time and really our time is our money. So, we find so much more richness spending time with each other. I know all these kids that come out of college and they think, I want a $50,000 job or I want a $75,000 job, and it will be fun. But, it's not going to be fun if you're making $75,000 and you're hating waking up and going to work every day. You have to know that when you go to some of these companies, you're simply a number to them. Every business is different in terms of their culture, and whether they see you like a person or a number at the end of the day.

2021 marks RACC's 50th Anniversary. What message would you like to pass on to President Looney and the RACC Community on this historic occasion?

I always see RACC as really being like the jumping point. So, I really see RACC as that starting point and to be 100% transparent, it's where I should have gone first. If RACC were not in the community, I can't imagine how many people would not be afforded an opportunity. There are other institutions around here, but they don't offer the education at the price and the help to get started. At the end of the day, I think what's right is giving everybody the opportunity.