Bold. Curious. Relentless. Creative. Obsessed. Tired. Resilient.
Asked for words to best describe an entrepreneur, participants in Washington and Lee University’s inaugural Entrepreneurship Summit offered those adjectives.
For W&L’s young Entrepreneurship Program, the summit, held this past weekend, allowed students to hear firsthand from almost three dozen alumni and area businesspeople who have experienced the highs and lows of starting a new business.
“Perhaps the most important things that we achieved were to inspire both students and new entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams, and to instill in them the belief that with a solid business idea, hard work and dedication, anything is possible,” said Jeff Shay, the Johnson Professor of Entrepreneurship and Leadership at Washington and Lee. “In addition, we strengthened our rapidly growing community of W&L entrepreneurs, which was evident by participants exchanging contact information and promising to stay in touch.”
In addition to panel discussions featuring the visiting business professionals, the summit allowed students to participate in small-group mentoring sessions with budding entrepreneurs and to network with the participants.
Shay has emphasized how the Washington and Lee program is distinctive because of a natural fit between the liberal arts and entrepreneurism; discussions during the summit underlined his point. Many of the W&L alumni not only cited their non-business majors but also credited the liberal arts courses they had taken as key to their success.
For instance, Reid Thompson, a 2004 graduate, majored in Spanish but singled out his courses in philosophy as especially valuable. Thompson has developed Hatch’d, an online crowd-sourcing and project-management platform.
“Philosophy encouraged me to think about thinking and questioning everything,” Thompson wrote in an informal questionnaire that the summit participants completed.
Lev Raslin, a 2012 graduate who majored in politics and anthropology and is an account manager with Sonic Notify, referred to the political philosophy course that he had taken from W&L professor Eduardo Valasquez. The course taught him that “opposites exist to everything,” Raslin wrote, adding that he also learned to “take any mistakes and use them as positive learning experiences.”
Andrew Ruppar, a 1998 graduate, is the chief operating officer of Inventory Source Technologies, an e-commerce company that handles supply-chain logistics and B2B application development. Ruppar remembered learning about the concept of the tragedy of the commons in a public-policy course taught by W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio (a professor at W&L from 1987 to 2002) and praised the religion courses he took with Harlan Beckley, the Fletcher Otey Thomas Professor of Religion. Concluded Ruppar: "If you are always expecting there to be a clear answer or a perfect approach, you will never start a business."
Other alumni referred to courses in English, psychology, journalism and mass communication, and politics as the most useful to their current career trajectory.
In the panel settings, the alumni freely shared their hard-earned wisdom.
Tom Faulkner, a 1974 graduate who majored in philosophy, has won several CLIO awards for the music behind Motel Six radio ads, and is famed for writing the “I Want My Baby Back Ribs" jingle for Chili's. Faulkner said he was “born to create.” Creative minds, he said, are driven by enthusiasm for a product, while business minds are more pragmatic and less emotional.
“I am a creative mind, and because of that I'm going to miss things, so I align myself with at least one well-trusted ‘biz whiz’ friend and mentor who can help me through the process,” said Faulkner.
Several of the W&L alumni entrepreneurs cited another distinctive characteristic of the University that has been critical to their success: W&L’s Honor System.
Faulkner, for instance, advised the students: “Don't lie, cheat or steal. You cannot compromise your values.”
Bill Pifer, a 1976 graduate, added: “You should never compromise your honesty in a business relationship. If you give up on the honor and honesty, it's a huge compromise that you may never get over.”
That sentiment was also echoed by 1999 alumna Elizabeth Warland, vice president of sales for Purgenix Inc., who concluded: “If you do not do your business with integrity, it will come back to you. If you are not representing what W&L has taught us, you're not going to make it."