From repurposing real estate to establishing a retail enterprise, Mike Balitsaris ’90 CLAS has always been in the business of creating. As owner and founder of Waltzing Matilda USA—a business originally inspired when he was studying English at Villanova’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences—Balitsaris knows the value of the Villanova difference.
“There is no doubt that my liberal arts education has played a critical role in the direction of how I make a living, and I use pieces of my degree every day,” says Balitsaris “It was not just the curriculum itself that I found invaluable. It was the professors and classmates and our discussions that were important. It gave me the knowledge and the courage to forge my own path and that has made all the difference.”
After graduation, Balitsaris spent 15 years in real estate, working with fellow Villanova alum Michael O'Neill ’84 VSB. The pair sought to revitalize buildings such as old factories by recreating them into distinctive office spaces.
“I was inspired by recycling old spaces and loved finding hidden treasures in the vintage architecture,” he says. “As our business expanded I moved on to different roles and there was a void in the creative part of my life. Long story short, I started getting this pulling from my soul that I needed to get back to a more creative outlet and find a way to express myself artistically.”
That’s when Waltzing Matilda was born. Named after a song Balitsaris shared with his father, the Wayne-based company designs and sells handcrafted leather bags, sandals and accessories using primarily recycled materials—a business model that heralds back to Balitsaris’ days in the dorm. Inspired by a pair of sandals he bought in Greece, Balitsaris made his first pair when he was at Villanova. As a student-athlete, finding time for a part-time job was difficult. So after a few compliments on his first pair, Balitsaris began making more sandals from repurposed leather and selling them to classmates and friends.
“One thing lead to another, and I ended up selling sandals to shops in beach towns by day and making them at night.”
Albeit a higher-end product, Waltzing Matilda is reminiscent of Balitsaris’ first sandal business, and again, the Villanova network has proved invaluable. Through a meeting at the Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship Institute (ICE Institute) on campus, Balitsaris was able to connect with Richard Greiner ’07 VSB—co-founder of Huckberry LLC, an online retailer featuring brands of similar ethos to Waltzing Matilda.
“Within 24 hours of my meeting at Villanova, I had a meeting with Huckberry and we launched our brand on their site in October,” he says. “That’s what the Villanova network can do for you.”