Dominik Mjartan certainly does not lack for determination. At 12, he was building and selling bikes. At 13, he landed his first real job, working for his father’s construction company. He was 15 when he began high school, started taking foreign language classes, and decided to apply for an exchange student program to study abroad.
At 16, with nothing more than a plane ticket, a small stipend, and tenacity, Mjartan left his home in Communist Czechoslovakia for America.
“I always had a sense that there was something more to this world outside of my home country,” Mjartan said of his childhood. “So when the opportunity came up, I took a chance to explore something new.”
New was Camden, Ark.
There, Mjartan lived with a host family while attending high school, taking on odd jobs at $5 an hour. The small community and its generous residents welcomed him with open arms.
“I came with no money, no home, no real direction. But I was willing to work,” Mjartan said. “Someone always came along and got me to the next step.” “The most life-changing example of this extreme generosity was the Eckert family in Camden who basically adopted me.” Eddie devoted hundreds of hours to teaching him English while Elaine became his “Jewish Mother.”
That next step was a community college, where he found he had a knack for teaching math.
“I was standing at the whiteboard writing out a formula, and I turned around to a classroom full of 30 people from what had just been a handful,” he said. Because English wasn’t his first language, he had the patience to not only teach himself but others.
Several professors at Southern Arkansas University Tech, saw potential in Mjartan helped him in the next phase of his journey, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
“You never know who you will meet who will change your life,” Mjartan said, rattling off a number of people who helped him along the way. “At each decision point in my life, one of these wonderful kind folks always came through with just the right support and advice.”
A professor at SAU urged Mjartan to apply for the Donaghey Scholars Program, which was able to offer out-of-state tuition.
“It was a key turning point,” Mjartan said. “No other college could offer me that.”
In 1998, he became a Trojan, choosing to major in business because of the various career paths it offered.
It had it all, Mjartan said, including “human resource management, finance, banking, organizational behavior, computers, information systems.”
The Donaghey scholar experience, he said, was transformational. The rigors of the honors program propelled him to new heights while still giving him a solid foundation of knowledge he uses even to this day.
Several professors left a lasting impression on Mjartan, including Dr. Janet Lanza in the biology department and many others in the business college.
Mjartan graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in management. Two weeks after commencement, he married his college sweetheart, Georgia. They moved to Ireland, where she was a Mitchell scholar and he was accepted to the prestigious executive MBA program at the University of Ulster. He graduated at the top of his class.
Returning home to Little Rock, the couple jumped right into their respective careers, he at a high-tech company and she at a consulting job.
An awakening of sorts led both of them to change course. Georgia was asked to step in as executive director at Our House, a nonprofit that sets out to improve the lives of thousands of disadvantaged residents in Little Rock. She connected Mjartan to Southern Bancorp Inc., one of the largest and oldest development banks in the United States.
The Mjartans, it seems, found their calling.
“It was an interesting experience,” Mjartan said of helping Georgia when she started at the financially strapped nonprofit. “I realized growing up in a Communist country that those kids had a substantially better chance at achieving the American dream than the kids I saw in the impoverished Delta.”
Mjartan describes seeing a child getting on the school bus he rode for almost two hours a day. He stepped into the bus without a backpack, leaving a house with a roof that was crumbling above him.
“That’s when I connected the dots,” Mjartan said. “Every child should have a decent shot at the American dream.”
So Mjartan joined Southern Bancorp, where he is now senior vice president in charge of the bank’s national communications, marketing, capital development, and investor relations. The same determination that led him to Camden and eventually UALR is what keeps him going now to help distressed rural communities improve education and economic opportunities for their residents.
“This work sort of found me,” Mjartan said.