Entrepreneurship Program to Obtain Independent Space
By Chuck Dodge This August, the recent upbringing of an entrepreneurship discipline at Washington and Lee will materialize in the form of two distinct buildings close to campus, dedicated to the study and practice of small enterprise. Having received approval from the deans of both colleges (The Williams School and the Liberal Arts College) and President Ruscio, and expected to receive funding from alumni donors greater than the $500,000 target, the Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship will provide a new space where students of all backgrounds and majors can come together to generate new ideas, craft services, collect classroom instruction, and chat with alumni who have valuable field experience.
Both buildings already exist but are not owned by the University. One is known as the Hopkins House, a historical building on West Nelson Street that the Program will rent out in its entirety. The other space will be a large portion of a dance studio on Jefferson Street, which will be renamed: The Connolly Center.
The project’s undertaking marks a timely pivot by the University, which, thanks to student, professor and alumni enthusiasts, has made a proactive decision by committing resources to this increasingly relevant discipline. The Kauffman Index, which measures national startup activity, indicated that 2015 experienced the highest year-over-year addition of new businesses since the index’s inception in 1997. This represents an average of 530,000 new business owners every month. Small business is the talk of presidential candidates. It is the vehicle that makes your iPhone more than an empty space. It is the origin of the American economy and will determine its future health. Schools around the world are recognizing its importance, but just as importantly they are recognizing its independence—its own context and parameters as more than a handful of courses thrown into a Business degree. Florida State University announced last December its largest donation in history, $100 million, which will be used to create the country’s largest interdisciplinary, accredited school for entrepreneurship.
The commitment to entrepreneurial study is something of a new phenomenon on the W&L campus, taking form only a few years ago. Founded by a few passionate students in 2010, the Washington and Lee University Venture Club executes consulting projects for alumni ventures and puts on events such as the Entrepreneurship Summit, which last year hosted 127 alumni and 550 students. The following behind these events has not always been so zealous. Venture Club advisor Professor Jeff Shay, who is credited with establishing a tangible entrepreneurship program on campus since his arrival seven years ago, recalls that only 21 students showed up to Stackhouse Theatre when founding ESPN Chairman Stuart Evey visited the school in 2009. Today, Venture Club alone is comprised of 44 students and maintains a competitive interview process.
One of the great merits of the Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship will become its availability to a broad range of students, a factor that is essential to effective startup practice. Entrepreneurship thrives on collaboration, rather than simply tolerating it. “From the project’s inception two years ago it was seen as an interdisciplinary program to bring students together from across the entire campus,” said Shay. “It is going to bridge the College and the Williams School.” This cross-functioning is somewhat unique in relation to academic departments, as most studies and programs at W&L remain confined to one school or the other with exceptions of the Environmental Studies Program, the Shepherd Program, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Africana Studies Program and the Education Policy Minor. The Connolly Center will follow suit with these particular programs, primarily to benefit the work of student entrepreneurs. If a Politics major is determined to create and sell a new type of bottle opener, he will need the help of an engineer to construct the device, the guidance of a Business major to conduct market research, and perhaps the media expertise of a Journalism major to envision marketing promotions. The dream must be accomplished as a unit. The new buildings will realize just that: the space and the resources for these ideas to come together, for an idea to become a product.
This process begins when a student posts an idea on the “connections board” in one of the buildings, but the Center will offer much more than the visual linkage of projects and teams. Hopkins 101 and Connolly 101, as they will be known, will provide classroom seminar space for a host of entrepreneurship-related courses: three sections annually of the Entrepreneurship Capstone, two sections of Social Entrepreneurship and likely one of Media Management and Entrepreneurship, as well as a number of coding and app development courses among others as they are offered. There will be study space for organizations like Venture Club and individuals alike, who will be able to access the space by “swiping in.” The Connolly Center will also host “entrepreneurs in residence,” startup and venture capital alumni enthusiasts who will visit campus in two-week intervals to provide students with easily accessible guidance. Other ideas are also in the works.
Given their cross-disciplinary nature, the Connolly Center and the Hopkins House necessitate the endorsement of multiple deans. Dean Robert Straughan of the Williams School, his predecessor Dean Larry Peppers, and the Dean of the College Suzanne Keen have all pledged their support of the project. President Ruscio also granted the project his endorsement, giving Shay and Professor Andrew Hess, VC faculty advisor, latitude to mold the project as they saw fit. “They saw the vision,” Shay remarked.
Even with full-fledged University support, the vision for a Connolly Center would remain a concept without significant alumni backing. Larry Connolly ’79 and his wife, Leigh, committed a $2.5 million dollar gift in 2013 that dubbed W&L’s Entrepreneurship Program: The J. Lawrence Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship. Dean Peppers called the donation “transformational” at the time, and it certainly was. This fund spins off around 5% or $125,000 each year that allows the Program to bring in speakers, host events, and create new initiatives for student entrepreneurs.
But this donation does not support the Program’s newest undertaking, which requires a new inflow of funds. The project leaders have set a $500,000 target for the Connolly Center and the Hopkins House that will serve to cover the rent and refurbish the two buildings, which the University will lease from their local owners. Similar to the Connolly gift, this “quasi-endowment,” as Shay describes it, will also turn out 5% or $25,000 annually. Yet, this emergent fund will not be limited to the Connolly Center and the Hopkins House. It is transferable, meaning that if the Program continues to grow and needs a larger work place, it may commit the remaining portion of the endowment to occupy that space. The full endowment is expected by August, when the buildings will open their doors, and Shay claims the project has already received commitments from 100% of the Entrepreneurship Advisory Board, who are keen on completing the project.
The Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship presents an exciting opportunity for campus cohesion - especially now, when the job market and social issues alike continue to drive students apart in both studies and beliefs. In championing small business, the Center feeds on diversity of thought to create real-world, innovative solutions. It presents an opportunity for all students to take part, to apply their distinctive backgrounds and skill-sets in an effort to engender a future with fresh answers. Come with what you have. Bring an idea. Leave with an education, as well as - potentially - a business.