Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Entrepreneurial Instinct Starts Young,
Except When JCU Tries to Obliterate It

The editors of Inc. Magazine, knowing that most entrepreneurs begin hatching money-making ventures at a tender age, were smart enough to sponsor this neat contest for the best lemonade stand in America. I thought it was a uniquely creative way to signal an interest in the next generation of readers while also scaring up some web traffic. But for me, it also brought to mind a shameful mini-chapter in my alma mater's recent history. A couple of years ago, according to this account in the alt-weekly the Scene, John Carroll University's chief of security strong-armed a couple of neighborhood kids who were trying to sell lemonade to thirsty attendees of the university's commencement exercises, and booted them off the campus. Not trusting Scene's reporting, I recently called the mom myself, and she confirmed the paper's account.

I wish I could report to you that this apparent hostility to emerging entrepreneurs was an isolated incident. Unfortunately, it's of a piece with much wider problems at the school, a fundamental retreat from its values. The JCU Entrepreneurs Association--which was once a beacon to all sorts of people in business for themselves, a wonderful social network that also helped encourage a cross-pollination of business mentoring--decided a few years ago to close off membership to anyone whose company's annual revenues fell below a million dollars. Now, I understand the plan is to soon raise that minimum to $2 million. When I asked the executive director how the organization could possibly follow such an un-Jesuit path as this, his reply was this: it creates a better pipeline of donors to the school. "That, too, is a Jesuit principal," he said with a grin. It helped soured me for all time to the group, and perhaps even eventually to the school itself. But the university is learning the hard way that when it forgets about friend-raising, as it has in recent years, fundraising will suffer as well. Donations have been falling for some time.

The university recently got a wake-up call about all of this, the kind that should have opened the eyes of even the most hard-bitten defenders of the approach of catering exclusively to the well-off. The nation's leading foundation for encouraging entrepreneurship, the Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation, recently decided to invest in building the pipeline of entrepreneurs in this area. To do so, it decided to sink six-figure, multi-year support into five universities in the region. But it had one caveat: the money (between a half-million and three-quarters of a million per school) must be put to work by the arts & sciences departments rather the business schools, because Kauffmann has learned that business schools historically don't do much to support and encourage the formation of new and emerging businesses (just take a guess at where the JCU EA is housed--yes, in the Boler Business School).

Given those parameters, JCU should have been a shoe-in, right? Its Jesuit focus, nourished by several hundred years of grounding in the primacy of a liberal arts education, and the fact that it has historically produced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of graduates who went on to establish businesses, set it apart from the region. Unfortunately, it bombed the presentation, for which it seemed entirely unprepared. "We were just dying to give it to John Carroll," one Kauffman judge told me. Instead, the funding went to Hiram College, Baldwin-Wallace, Oberlin College and the College of Wooster, all eminently worthy choices. But it also went to a complete dark horse, Lake Erie College, which is on no one's list of molders of great entrepreneurs, but which now might well develop into such a place.

I wish I could say that that decision felt like a righteous punishment for the school's recent spate of horrible, non-Jesuit, decisions. Instead, it only causes me anguish.


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