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Our Culture of Entrepreneurship

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We are pleased and honored to be sharing this article from a leading hospitality and culinary university with whom we happen to have a very close relationship. 

As seen in the Winter 2014 - jwu Johnson & Wales University Magazine

You can see the full article here!

Our Culture of Entrepreneurship

By Catherine Sengel

SINCE ITS FOUNDING, JOHNSON & WALES UNIVERSITY HAS CHAMPIONED THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT. BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT EDUCATION HAS ALWAYS BEEN A PART OF THE INSTITUTION AND NEVER HAS THIS BEEN MORE TRUE THAN TODAY.

In his freshman year at Johnson & Wales, Eric Weiner ’93 bought a used limousine and launched a car service. By the time he graduated, he owned three vehicles and the start of a business eventually named Best Limousine Company in America by LCT Magazine, and Weiner, the Rhode Island Small Business Person of the Year.

After 20 years, Weiner decided to sell his venture and move on to something new. In 2013 he came back to JWU’s Larry Friedman International Center for Entrepreneurship (LFICE) to pitch and win backing for his latest brainchild, FoodTrucksIn.com, at SharkFest, now an annual LFICE competition where students and alumni compete for financial and institutional support.

“It feels like Johnson & Wales has played this really big part in me starting both of my businesses, and the experience was so different,” Weiner says. “The support both times was unbelievable but the mechanism has matured.”

From the time Gertrude and Mary started a business with one typewriter, entrepreneurship has been part of the Johnson & Wales DNA. Edward Triangolo and Morris Gaebe bought the burgeoning business school with a loan from their in-laws and then expanded to meet the job market and tailor offerings to returning GIs. They later took the advice of a restaurant supply magnate to present the nation’s first college degree in culinary arts. A major in entrepreneurship was offered in the mid-1980s and by the new century, a base was established to develop its scope. What’s coalesced over time is a program that’s won national acclaim and a center that is the envy of other institutions.

“Just in the last few years, many colleges and universities are opening entrepreneurship centers,” notes John Robitaille, executive-in-residence at LFICE. “When I talk with my counterparts at Brown, Bryant, RISD and URI, they’re all heading in this direction.”

Johnson & Wales University is ahead of the curve.

Genetic Prescience

Entrepreneurship has been a major in the College of Business since 1987, with students selling lobsters at T.F. Green Airport as a practice project. When Weiner arrived in 1990, the institution was entrepreneurial in structure, but its approach was aimed more at giving students “the independence to decide to be an entrepreneur,” he recalls.

“The first time that I started a business, it was new for everybody. There just weren’t students on campus that were starting businesses, and the entire community embraced me.”

With his cell phone ringing between and during classes, Weiner caught the attention of professors and classmates alike, who wanted to know what he was doing and how they could support his education as he was starting a business. “There was just so much of that individual support coming at me that first time. It was really a great experience starting a business while in business school.”

Weiner went on to own 25 limousines and win national and international attention with All Occasion Transportation in the 20 years that followed. During that time, the entrepreneurship program gained structure, champions and a mission. In 1997, with a half-million-dollar donation from entrepreneur and restaurateur Edward “Ned” Grace III ’97 Hon., and a matching gift from restaurant supply magnate David Friedman ’75 Hon., in memory of his son, the Larry Friedman International Center for Entrepreneurship was established to train young entrepreneurs. Kenneth Proudfoot took charge as program director. A makeshift business lab was set up in the Kinsley building and by 1999 students were shaping business plans and ventures and traveling to Eastern Europe to explore the role entrepreneurship was playing in nations emerging from Communist rule.

With the completion of street-front space on Abbott Park Place in the TACO Center for Business and the Arts & Sciences, LFICE and the program it houses established a formal presence. The center and the initiatives that spun out of it have included connections to fund student ventures; the Rhode Island MicroEnterprise Association, a community outreach that offered free training in starting and developing a small business; a Center for Performance Excellence; business incubators, a library, an on-site market research office and an advertising lab. In 2003, Entrepreneur magazine included Johnson & Wales University on its first list of 100 Entrepreneurial Colleges and Universities.

Open-Door Education

Now under Robitaille’s direction, LFICE is a hive of activity at all hours of the day. “My counterparts at other universities drool over this space and wish they had it,” he chuckles. Today, while there are more than 200 students in the entrepreneurship program, students in any major, as well as staff and faculty, are welcome to enter and discuss a plan. “The door is open to any student or alum with an idea. At the very least we’ll give them the courtesy of an initial evaluation and we’ll be very honest with them,” says Robitaille.

Robitaille would like to see all students dip their toes in the entrepreneurial water. “It would be a very worthy goal for Johnson & Wales to be able to say, ‘Yes we have many majors to offer, we’re tops in many fields, but we also provide opportunity for students to explore being on their own and starting and creating a business as well … not saying that they’re all going to do it, but at least if they can weigh that option, how neat is that?”

Andrew Rogers ’14 took that option and considers the center “a hidden gem.” Rogers, a hospitality major, transferred to JWU to study hotel management. He and his father already had a small business in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains and the neighboring New York Catskills, Pocono Segway Tours LLC. Once in Providence, “it was like the universe kind of said, ‘This city would be perfect” for such a business, Rogers recalls.

In addition to taking classes in entrepreneurship, Rogers interned for the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and the Providence Rink, doing marketing and advertising. In addition, he worked making pizza at night on the city’s Federal Hill. He capped off the year with a hospitality FAM [Familiarization] trip to Italy, where he saw similar businesses in Rome and gained added perspective.

With a goal of offering Providence Segway tours to help promote tourism and local businesses, he used center resources — white boards, computers, data banks — to research, develop strategies and talk business. 

Rogers rode with a five-Segway group for his inaugural tour, to appropriate fanfare.

“When we had the ribbon-cutting, John Robitaille hooked me up with people in public relations to get a hold of newspapers, radio stations, and get my name out there. He knows so many people, it was a great network of pretty much the entire city,” he says. “That was huge.”

Focused Determination

Robitaille, a former gubernatorial candidate with far-reaching connections in education, politics and business, is eager to use his energy on behalf of students, many of whom he’s worked closely with in the past two years.

“There are a lot of working-class kids, first in families in college, and they have a work ethic that is amazing to me,” he observes. “They say Millennials are lazy. The kids that choose an entrepreneurial route are different. They may not all be A students, but they’ve got grit and determination.

“Some come in here every single day and they’re so determined to launch a business of their own. It’s not until you give them an opportunity to try, that one day they realize, ‘Hey, this is hard work.’ If we can act as a filter here, so be it. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur.”

In the process, all are encouraged to persevere — and the results sometimes have a global impact.

Brandon Monti ’14 came to JWU from Waterbury, Conn., an entrepreneurship major determined to run his own enterprise from a young age. 

“I was always that kid who had that crazy business idea,” he notes.  To override the challenges of a speech impediment and self-destructive doubt, he began selling T-shirts in high school and developed “True Monti — making apparel for the greater good.”

“When I got here at Johnson & Wales, I was selling a T-shirt,” says Monti. His first lesson was that it was not a T-shirt he was selling but a brand. These days, True Monti has evolved into a program that gives high school students the opportunity to develop entrepreneurial skills of their own.

Thanks to Robitaille’s outreach to local high schools, Monti piloted programs that allow students to build relationships with local nonprofits, market a product and generate profits for a cause. “Because the pilot [program] went so well, we’re going to begin to reach out to high schools across the nation. Our hope is for 100 high schools in 2014,” Monti says. “Now we’re driving education through apparel and for a cause.”

The students who approach the center for help are not only determined, their motives are often altruistic, Robitaille has noticed. “We have a generation of students here who are very socially conscious. I would say 40 to 50 percent of the ventures we do will be social — a nonprofit or a hybrid of a socially conscious organization, where they’re making something at a profit but a percentage of the bottom line has gone to a cause.”

He points to such recent graduates as 2013 Newman Civic Award Fellow Mohammed Kamara ’13, whose Enlighten the Youth is providing literacy resources to children in Africa and helping establish the first public library in his homeland of Sierra Leone, and Julius Searight ’14’s Food4Good, a soup kitchen and food truck “from the community to the community,” as notable examples.

Investing in Talent

In the hope of providing a public platform for those with entrepreneurial aspirations, in 2011 Robitaille staged LFICE’s 

First Annual SharkFest. Modeled after ABC TV’s “SharkTank,” 

the competition allows students and alumni an opportunity to compete for first-, second- and third-prize seed money and support in shaping their ventures.

SharkFest is open to every major. Alumni are welcome to compete as well. “Unlike institutions that only focus on technology or medical research, our program can support any student with any entrepreneurial idea regardless of its marketplace. So long as it’s a sound venture proposal and they have a business plan, we’ll consider it,” Robitaille says.

Last year an alumnus proposed an innovative motorcross track in Wyoming. Of 2013’s five winners, one is in business on the West Coast and two students returned with more focused ventures.

“It shows that we have students who take something from ideation to commercialization, and that’s the name of the game,” Robitaille says. 

Collaboration with the School of Engineering and Design and its innovation lab brings 3-D printing and other advanced technology into product development. “We’re able to create working prototypes on their ventures.”

Everyone’s Welcome

Weiner, for one, was quick to take his chance at earning SharkFest backing for his newest creation. 

“When I bought that first car, I thought it would just be a college experience, but it turned into a wonderful business for a really long time.” That said, after selling the keys to the limo business and a stint consulting, he decided that foodies across the nation needed a way to track their favorite trucks.

At SharkFest 2013, his FoodTrucksIn.com placed first in the alumni category with its plan for an application that offers an up-to-the-minute bead on mobile dining’s destinations by city, location and food type. The event provided a first chance for Weiner and tech partner Stephen Cross to air their concept.

“To get such great feedback from so many people, whether students, faculty or university staff, and then to win, was a great launch for us and made us feel like this was really a good idea.”

One year later their site has 4,000 food trucks listed in 780 cities. Every state now has at least one truck in the app.

“The idea that the university would have enough faith in the students and their businesses to think that they would be a good investment sends the right message about the type of students that are at the university, the way the university feels about them and the positive outcomes that could come from that,” Weiner says.

“I think that that’s what’s changed in the last 20 years. Now entrepreneurship is built into the actual experience as a student.”

New Management

More than part of the student experience, LFICE and the entrepreneurial endeavors it houses are now part of Experiential Education & Career Services. “The restructuring aligned two major strengths of the university in regards to work-integrated learning, and allowed two areas to share their resources to best serve our students,” says Maureen Dumas, vice president of experiential education and career services.

“This is experiential learning at its best,” says Robitaille. Students can now apply for a full 11-week internship at the center to be there full time — 40 hours a week to work on their businesses for full credit. 

“It can’t get much better than that,” he adds. “I don’t know where else that’s done.”

Rogers felt served from day one in his interactions with experiential education. Once he transferred to JWU, what he calls “the best decision of my life,” he began meeting with Michael Mroz in career services, at first to find a job and shape a résumé. In consideration of his business plan, an internship was arranged with the CVB. Most recently, he’s been recruiting interns for his own Providence Segway Tours, which he hopes to continue, including classmates in the enterprise.

His long-term goal after graduation is a position in the hospitality industry. “I want to be in tourism; I want to be in travel. I want to be corporate.”

During his CVB internship, Rogers interviewed JWU alumnus Rob Palleschi ’86, global head of the Doubletree brand. Talk of Hilton’s management development program caught his interest. “I pretty much have to weigh my options and see what comes.”

Weiner notes that alumni connections to current program development are broadening both education and potential. Though there were hundreds of JWU graduates who’d started businesses over the years, when he was on campus in 1990, there were few mechanisms for establishing ties. “Now with our entrepreneurship center, you’re seeing graduates who own businesses mixing with students every day.”

Robitaille brings in a roster of alumni experts “to talk about the good, bad and ugly of starting and running a business.” 

Martin Murch ’90, who is opening up his third chain of restaurants, was back recently, as was Chef John Csukor ’90, whose product innovation company is helping develop students’ concepts.

Greg Roberts ’00 talked about his triumphs and failures in hospitality and finance businesses. Now in his fifth venture, he’s chief operating officer of CPEX, one of the top commercial real estate businesses in New York, and gladly offered insights into business development. “It takes a lot to be an entrepreneur,” he told students, warning them not to make the mistakes he did. “I’m blunt and to the point about over-extending.”

He’s equally candid about the changing landscape as the corporate world downsizes. “With fewer jobs, employment is based on relationships that must be made early. You have to adapt,” he warns. 

In his own recruiting he looks for those who bring innovation, new ideas and creativity to the mix.

The thought of building a business right out of school is frightening, he knows. “It’s one thing to have an idea, but it also takes execution; getting it done,” he says. “JWU’s entrepreneurship program can give [students] the confidence that they can do it.”

Robitaille says the entrepreneurial students he meets need both academic preparation and the opportunity to start a venture.

What you learn from having experience either with a start-up or starting something on your own, are the skills of observation, flexibility, risk-taking, recognizing opportunities, managing change, of not quitting, of overcoming fear of failure — life skills valuable beyond the workplace.

Teaching something the same way it was taught 20 years ago isn’t cutting it. The world is a different place and the velocity of change demands higher ed produce students who are adaptive and have those skills. “I think having entrepreneurship embedded in the curriculum of any university will be an imperative in the future,”  Robitaille says.

JWU is already there.

Here and Why

On any given day, LFICE finds business leaders and alumni visiting with students working on projects. Even among his professionally established friends, Robitaille knows former corporate executives and managers with jobs lost to downsizing who became entrepreneurs out of necessity. “It’s a skill set you can learn about and develop while you’re in college and who knows, some day you might have to rely on it and use it,” he says.

He would like to make entrepreneurship a part of every graduate’s career options for the future.

“Why not build your own job, be your own boss?” he asks.

“The dream for me is that when every student walks off the stage at commencement, they’ve got a degree in one hand and a business plan in the other.”

 See the full article here!