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May 5, 2014

It's not about getting rich

Faculty and alumni help students apply creativity and put innovation into practice

By Andy Perrine ('86)

From Spring/Summer 2014 Madison magazine

Ben Stout ('14) and Eric Walisko ('15)Ben Stout ('14) and Eric Walisko ('15) are vice president and president of the new JMU student organization, the Society of Entrepreneurs. Photograph by Mike Miriello ('09M)

Get to know a few entrepreneurs and you'll quickly learn that the joy of overcoming challenges is the molten core of their motivation, not getting rich. Serial entrepreneur and chair of yet another successful tech start up, Jeff Grass ('92) says, "I believe entrepreneurs are passionate for ideas. There is fun associated with figuring out problems. You'll lose steam quickly if it's just about the money."

Entrepreneurship is going to put JMU on the map, [it's the] perfect place for entrepreneurship to spread because the university attracts people who communicate well."

Grass' latest venture LiveSafe is a start-up aimed at creating a next generation safety network for mobile phones. The company announced in early April that it has raised millions in capital, and that media mogul Barry Diller joined its board. Grass says, "The fact that Diller joined our board says a lot. The power of LiveSafe is that it can make the world a safer place. We are very mission-driven, and that's why we've attracted such top-level advisers. People on Diller's level are motivated by such a mission."

Others agree. John Rothenberger ('88), founder of SE Solutions in Reston, Va., and current chair the JMU Center for Entrepreneurship Advisory Council says, "It's not just about starting businesses and making money. It's about being creative, innovative and learning about applying creativity and putting innovation into practice. Really, it's a way of thinking" Rothenberger adds, "And we've been doing this for years in the College of Business Venture Creation class (Management 472). But now it seems the entire campus is catching the bug."

Society of Entrepreneurs

Most definitely bitten by the bug, Eric Walisko ('15) and Ben Stout ('14) are president and vice president of the recently founded JMU student organization, the Society of Entrepreneurs. Talking to these two, their seasoned confidence makes you quickly forget they're students.

"Entrepreneurship is going to put JMU on the map," says Walisko. "Yes," adds Stout quickly. "JMU is a perfect place for entrepreneurship to spread because the university attracts people who communicate well." Founded last year by Gil Welsford ('13), the Society of Entrepreneurs has doubled its membership and has plans to continue growing. "We want to scale the group but keep the original model intact," says Walisko.

Every JMU college is represented among the Society of Entrepreneurs membership, so it is truly a multidisciplinary approach. Stout says, "It's not just the College of Business. We've got SMAD students, social work students. For us, entrepreneurship is about innovating in your field no matter what it is, and creating opportunity." Once a month the group convenes a "Start-Up Studio" where students from across campus can share their new ideas and receive support from the society members. Walisko says, "There are so many ways to criticize an idea. So we start with listening and support." Stout interjects, "Yes. We encourage a friendly approach. College is absolutely the best time to take risks. If you fail, the stakes are low."

The perfect incubator

Alumni and students aren't the only ones who believe that JMU is becoming the perfect incubator for the entrepreneurial spirit. Carol Hamilton, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, says, "We're simply building on our existing strengths. Everyone knows that JMU is an unusually social place. And you hear all the time from recruiters that JMU graduates are naturals when it comes to teamwork." As proof, the center took six students on a spring break trip this year to Silicon Valley where they met with JMU alumni at start-ups and at established businesses including Apple and Google. All six students received job offers while there.

Next, Hamilton says her goal is to take the Center for Entrepreneurship far beyond the traditional bounds between organizations. "Instead of a place to go, we are hoping to promote a way of thinking." Among many efforts, Hamilton is planning Sept. 12, 2014, as a day to celebrate entrepreneurship. "We're hoping to bring lots of alumni to campus and really raise awareness that JMU can become well known as the place to go for budding entrepreneurs."

Learn more at www.jmu.edu/cfe.