2016-06-15 / Business News



Troy Collins (left), who started a new construction management business in May, is pictured with (from left) Professor Sandra Kauanui and students Jennie Edwards, Rachel Koren and Harrison Yazgi. 
EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY Troy Collins (left), who started a new construction management business in May, is pictured with (from left) Professor Sandra Kauanui and students Jennie Edwards, Rachel Koren and Harrison Yazgi. EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY Sandra Kauanui was thrilled to hear the news last week that Florida Gulf Coast University’s governing board plans to make entrepreneurship arguably its top academic priority, one of the signature courses of study that the university will be most known for in the future. With Professor Kauanui, that is already on the way to happening.

A whirlwind of energy with a teal jacket and bright pink fingernails, she is a networking extraordinaire, chair of the Management Department in the Lutgert College of Business — and founded the FGCU Institute for Entrepreneurship. The institute aims to promote the course of study to students throughout the university and make it a hub for entrepreneurial activity in the region.

Professor Sandra Kauanui 
EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY Professor Sandra Kauanui EVAN WILLIAMS / FLORIDA WEEKLY “I built this like I built my business. It’s no different,” she said. “You start with nothing and you build it.”

An entrepreneur who founded a successful firm in the financial services industry, she ran the business for more than 20 years before selling it so she could make the shift to academia. Professor Kauanui has been working to build up FGCU’s program since moving here from California State Polytechnic University in 2007.

Starting in the fall of 2014, that has included opening courses as well as the option to pursue a minor in entrepreneurship to all students, not just those in the College of Business. That first semester, 200 students enrolled in entrepreneurship courses, a number that has grown to 800 students from across the university. In coming years, the school will offer undergraduate students an entrepreneurship major as well.

ELY ELY The institute, which partners the College of Business with the U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering, is also making inroads as a community partner. It is leading a state program to boost start-ups and businesses owned by veterans, has enlisted retired executives to mentor students, made connections with local venture capital forums, and created entrepreneurial programs for high school students and teachers.

This year, the institute worked with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation to host The Frank Stern Compassionate Shark Tank for Veterans. FGCU faculty, staff and mentors helped 45 veterans hone their start-up plans or to help grow their business. Then they had a chance to pitch their ideas to local investors. They awarded the top prize of $10,000 to Cape Coral resident Stephen Berge, who served as an engineer in the Marine Corps from 2000 to 2008, for his construction supply sourcing company BRAVO.

The money came from a Community Foundation endowment from Frank Stern, a successful local real estate developer in the mid 1900s. Mr. Stern was an Air Force pilot during World War II who died at age 95 in February 2014.

Promoting local small businesses strengthens the social and economic fabric of the region, said Sarah Owen, the foundation’s president and CEO.

“This whole culture of entrepreneurship in a region is really vital,” she said. “So to have an institution where citizens can go who are interested in pursuing entrepreneurial ventures will be right in our backyard. They won’t have to go out of our area to get this type of training or this type of education or resources.”

John Gamba, a foundation board member and president of Naples-based MassiveU, an education technology company, agreed.

“I think developing an entrepreneurial mindset for all of our young students is critically important to developing 21st century skills,” he said.

“We think that that’s the future of job creation. That’s the future of developing a thriving economy: locally, nationally, internationally. It’s great to see FGCU taking the steps to really prioritize entrepreneurship.”

Troy Collins, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservist, retired from the corps and in May started a new construction management business, TD Collins. After participating in the Compassionate Shark Tank, he is working with four undergrad seniors tasked with helping him design a better website and research opportunities for veteran-owned businesses as part of their coursework. They include Jennie Edwards, a business management major; Rachel Koren, business management with a concentration in entrepreneurship; Harrison Yazgi, marketing; and Yuneisy Flores, management.

“These guys come up with stuff that an old guy like me would never think about,” Mr. Collins said.

New Venture Lab

Professor Kauanui also developed an undergrad course with a shark tank aspect in which business and engineering students work hand-in-hand on a detailed business plan, along with mentors. New Venture Lab is a junior- and senior-level class required for an entrepreneurship minor.

As former executive vice president of information and strategic planning for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Vermont, Rod Ely is one of the mentors who has supported Professor Kauanui’s efforts. He and his wife moved to Southwest Florida after their children attended FGCU and he retired from Green Mountain in 2014.

“I wanted to do something to give back and help out what I saw was an incredible young university in a fabulous community down here,” Mr. Ely said.

He has an ambitious vision for the university’s dedication to start-up business.

“Most Millennials have in mind a purpose for their life and what they want their careers to be,” he said, “and with this incredible entrepreneurship program they can figure out how to create businesses that can solve the world’s problems.”

Dixibeth Villarraga, who graduated this year, was a special education major and entrepreneurship minor.

“It totally changed my world,” said Ms. Villarraga, who is 25. “It completely changed the way I think and the way I look at things. I learned that entrepreneurship (is) across all disciplines.

“To me entrepreneurship is all about adding value to a society that needs it. To create a positive change in something you believe in and something you’re passionate about. It’s a way to make a living by doing what you love.”

Ms. Villarraga decided to enroll in the courses after watching her mom struggle with her own small business that helps people with developmental disabilities. When she took the Venture Lab class, her team developed an award-winning product that ensures people who interact with hospital patients have clean hands, potentially keeping patients healthier and for hospitals reducing fines, “a win-win.”

A red light goes off if anyone enters the patient’s room and doesn’t wash their hands. When they wash up the light turns green. Her group found that hospital visitors are the most common dirty-handed perpetrators, although medical professionals occasionally forget, too.

Initially the course “was like a whirlwind for me,” Ms. Villarraga said. “So many concepts being thrown at you and you’re kind of unsure of where to go. That’s entrepreneurship, that’s what it’s all about.”

She’s been able to offer her mom some business advice as well.

“It’s just incredible how I’ll say ‘can you send me your P and Ls (profit and loss reports) from last month, I want to see how you’re doing.’ I can see things she has missed or even her accountant has missed.

“She’s just thrilled that I can do that for her and I can do that for myself.”

Ms. Villarraga came away convinced that it was “a great program across all disciplines. Art majors, music majors, everyone can benefit from learning about entrepreneurship.”

FGCU’s governing Board of Trustees shares that vision as well. They voted June 7 to make entrepreneurship one of the schools Four Pillars in its 2016- 2021 strategic plan. The other three pillars include one other academic program, health sciences, as well as the two more general categories of academic excellence and emerging pre-eminence, which focus on goals such as expanding an honors program, having undergrads get their degree in no more than four years, and fostering research.

The trustees identified the Institute for Entrepreneurship as “the nucleus of all campus-wide entrepreneurial initiatives, which will be further expanded into a College.” Its objectives included “creating Entrepreneurial mindset throughout the University Community” and a focus on “FGCU becoming the catalyst of entrepreneurship within Southwest Florida and the State.”

Originally from Virginia Beach, Va., Professor Kauanui said she took the position at FGCU to be near family here, including children and grandchildren, and because FGCU is a young, growing school, small enough to be a place where she could impact change. Most of all she enjoys working with students, sharing her passion for entrepreneurship and its potential to allow business owners to “love what they do.”

“Work should not be a job,” she said. “It should be a joy.” ¦

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