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Colgate University builds entrepreneurial muscle

By Norman Poltenson


HAMILTON — Liberal arts and entrepreneurship are usually perceived as polar opposites. The former is equated with an insular, sedate environment of thinking and contemplation; the latter exists in the rough-and-tumble world of business driven by mammon.

Yet, more than 3,000 U.S. colleges and universities now offer entrepreneurial programs. In business and engineering schools, it is the fastest growing discipline. Liberal-arts institutions have followed suit and embraced entrepreneurship.

Colgate University has bridged the perception gap by creating, “The Thought Into Action Entrepreneurship Institute (TIA),” a student incubator that makes ideas go live. “Only a tiny fraction of those people … [who have good ideas] have taken their ideas and made them happen,” says Andy Greenfield, incubator founder, serial entrepreneur, and Colgate alumnus class of 1974. “It is only by moving thought to action that you make a difference … Liberal-arts graduates have great basic training: … thinking critically, communicating well, and ask[ing] the question ‘what if.’ … Critical thinking teaches students how to build theories, which requires imagination, discipline, and courage. Liberal-arts students are encouraged to challenge conventional wisdom.

“The concept of TIA is simple,” continues Greenfield, “mentor students who have an idea to help turn the idea into action. TIA is not about theory; it’s about practice. I use the analogy of a car: Liberal arts is the critical-thinking engine, and TIA is the transmission that delivers power to the wheels … TIA takes something that didn’t exist before and mixes it with passion, mentorship, persistence, sweat, and courage. I call it ‘applied liberal arts.’ What differentiates Colgate from the other 3,000-plus programs is a focus on ‘doing entrepreneurship,’ mentored by alumni entrepreneurs rather than offering student programs about the study of entrepreneurship by professors.”

Wills Hapworth, a Colgate alumnus class of 2007 and founder of Dark Horse Investors, says that the program is distinguished by its involvement of mentors. “Our secret sauce is the 100 alumni and parents who volunteer annually to mentor the student entrepreneurs. We have an internal team that reviews applications for mentorship and interviews the candidates. The student entrepreneurs get no college credit for enrolling in the program, so we want to find mentors who are equally committed to the program. There is no academic side to this program, and it doesn’t matter whether you are creating a for-profit or nonprofit company or a campus-based venture. Those alumni and parents who become mentors all have experience working in the trenches. They drive the program … TIA touches every constituency on campus.”

TIA details
TIA is a two-semester program to which students must apply. Class size averages 40 to 50 students. The highlight of the program is a six-hour session held every Saturday in which mentors and students interact. According to Hapworth, students who aren’t serious about the program and don’t deliver on their commitments are asked to leave. There is no cost to students to join TIA, and the mentors issue no grades. Colgate launched the program in September 2009.

Sapling Advisory is an example of a TIA incubator venture. The student company is the brain-child of Joshua Lasker, CEO, and Daniel Swiecki, CTO. The two seniors had been working on a concept of matching financial advisors with their clients, much like eHarmony’s approach to predicting spousal compatibility and introducing potential lovebirds to each other. “We knew about TIA and decided to participate, because we needed help in marketing, legal questions, product development, and raising capital,” says Lasker. “We have created a business model to sell the service to financial advisors who are new to the field and are trying to build a clientele. Daniel and I know that cold-call selling is not effective nor are advertising and phone-book lists; an advisor needs to build a personal relationship.”

“There has to be trust,” adds Swiecki. “We are beta-testing the algorithm that we created to determine compatibility between advisor and advisee. The algorithm is a combination of rich profiles — gender, age, ethnicity, income, education, recent major life events, and hobbies — and insights similar to the Myers Briggs indicators. These are the relationship success drivers that ensure compatibility between professional and client. Success is measured by the quality of the relationship.”

Paul Sydlansky, a financial advisor with John G. Ullman & Associates of Corning, is one of the advisors testing the beta-site. “A relationship built on trust is the key to success [in developing a clientele],” says Sydlansky. “Whether you sell a product or advice, if it’s [widely] available the question is, whom do you trust? The return on your investment is certainly important, but if your advisor also offers valuable advice in other areas such as estate planning, benefits, taxes, and insurance, that may yield the best return. I like the Sapling idea, because it’s a valuable aid in building a relationship. It’s too early to tell whether Sapling will be successful, but the founders are working to differentiate themselves from the competition.” Sydlansky’s involvement in the beta-testing resulted from a recommendation by Ullman’s COO, a Colgate graduate familiar with Sapling. Sydlansky spent 13 years in Manhattan with Morgan Stanley before joining Ullman, a financial-management firm with more than $1 billion in assets under management.

Andres Echenique, a Colgate alumnus class of 1983 and a senior partner at EMA (Eric Mower + Associates), a Syracuse–based advertising and public-relations agency, is a mentor to Sapling. “I was impressed with the program, because the students were accountable,” asserts Echenique. “This is practical entrepreneurship with real ventures. The program involves learning multi-dimensional analysis and challenging assumptions. When Josh and Daniel complete TIA, they will only be a step or two away from launching the business. That’s the fun of being a mentor; we’re operating in the real world.”

Sapling’s business model calls for developing a large pool of clients, identifying the country’s best financial advisors, and creating a match. Sapling charges a membership fee to advisors and a fee for each lead that is successfully matched. To date, the company is debt-free and has received $20,000 in grants, over and above the mentoring. The U.S. market contains 300,000 financial advisors of whom Sapling is targeting those in the first decade of their careers. The beta-testing is being conducted with 12 financial advisors and should be completed in June when the Sapling website goes live. The goal is to sign up 1,500 advisors by the end of year one.

While Lasker and Swiecki are passionate about the Sapling project, they are approaching the corporate launch sensibly. The CEO, a geology major, starts employment this summer with Procter & Gamble in the San Francisco Bay area. The CTO, a computer-science and mathematical economics double major, joins J.P. Morgan in New York City. Neither is giving up his day job until Sapling scales up to a going business.

“We got way more from TIA than we expected,” exclaims Lasker. “We experienced how a rigorous liberal-arts curriculum prepared us to think like entrepreneurs. Liberal arts and entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand.”

Swiecki adds, “Liberal arts was vital to our venture. It gave us the critical mindset to challenge established thought.”

As Yogi Berra was fond of saying: “Who would of thunk it?” A liberal-arts school figures out how to marry thinking and action. Throw out perception; bring in reality. TIA is how Colgate builds entrepreneurial muscle.

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