Reporter with Silicon Hills News

GettyImages_91643580It’s a dubious distinction to be among Austin’s best kept secrets, but that pretty much describes St. Edward’s University’s entrepreneurship undergraduate program. As Tony Alvarado, interim chair of the program expressed when he came on at St. Ed’s in 2010: “Wow this is an amazing place! Does anybody know we exist?”
St. Ed’s Bachelor of Business Administration in Entrepreneurship started with a 2003 grant from the Kauffman Foundation, Alvarado said. The program is small, only 70 students in 2013, and clearly lacks the resources of behemoth McCombs at the University of Texas. The entrepreneurship program at St. Ed’s is more likely to focus on new uses for existing or emerging technology than on creating new technology. It’s only beginning to build relationships with incubators and accelerators such as Capital Factory and Tech Ranch.
But it has its own advantages. One is that, with classes so small, teachers and business people who come in to be mentors can connect more intimately with individual students and their projects.
“To be an entrepreneur you have to know your risk tolerance and what motivates you,” Alvarado said. “This entrepreneurial journey is fraught with traps. Your mindset has to be calibrated to take that journey. Because the program is so small, our classes are about 15-to-20 students, we have good contact with our students and we’re able to assess where they need a little bit of tweaking, support, encouragement.”

Focused on Service

And the second, but possibly most important aspect of St. Edward’s program is that it’s part of a school whose mission of service fosters a lot of community support among local business owners. Founded by the Catholic Order of the Holy Cross but with a non-denominational orientation, St. Edward’s provides financial aid for more than 60 percent of its students, many of whom come from homes in the lower economic brackets both in the U.S. and abroad. The university also strongly supports international studies and global perspectives, making study abroad accessible, and encouraging community service and volunteerism.
In fact, one program available to entrepreneurial students is to accompany MBA students on trips to campuses abroad where St. Ed’s has relationships to consult with businesses. That might include helping with micro-lending programs in Honduras or creating a marketing and business plan for a woman who owns a winery in France. The school also provides consulting for Austin business owners who have going concerns but no educational background in business.
“Someone here on South Congress might have a taqueria and they are able to hit the big time but have no idea how to scale this. Here comes our entrepreneurship program,” Alvarado said. “We encourage our students to reach out to this community in South Austin and start talking to local entrepreneurs. Observe what’s happening around St. Edwards….. We’re very well positioned to get our courses and students into these eco systems.”
Fred Schmidt, principal of Bullseye Business Development, co-founder of Portalarium and co-founder of Wild About Music Galleries, is an advisor for St. Ed’s School of Management and Business. He’s also the father of a recent grad from the MBA program.
“(Service) is woven into the student body,” Schmidt said. “With the amount of scholarships they issue…you’ve got everything from very wealthy children from the Middle East, to my son, to children who have never been out of Costa Rica and they’re here getting an education. So the focus is not in how much money they’re going to make or how important they’re going to be but whether they’re going to do something in the world that makes it a better place.”
In addition to numerous core business courses, the program has a “mission” segment that covers topics such as “the human experience, ethics and science in perspective.”

Quietly and Humbly

“Some things do have right answers,” Alvarado said. “You have to learn those competencies. But once we take care of those basics, they need to understand there’s a whole world out there with no right answers but huge problems….. What really excites me about entrepreneurship is that it’s the first major where you’ve got to know everything: accounting, finance, human resources, communications, technology…and you’ve got to be a team player because you’re not going to be good at all those things.”
One of the program’s star students is Hunter McLaughlin, who will graduate from the program in December. He started out as a computer science major, switched to finance, then started a clothing company to test out an idea and decided he was hooked on entrepreneurship. He’s already helping to run two companies.
McLaughlin is president of Basanty, a social portfolio system for primary schools where students can do all their work online. The company operates out of Capital Factory and has seven employees.
“You start off in kindergarten and when you apply to college you have this entire portfolio” that can be used is applying for scholarship, for example.
But he’s also founder of Brew Cupid, which mails coffee to customers’ homes on a regular basis. Capital Factory is one of their customers.
“We’ve been around for about five months and we just became profitable about three weeks ago,” McLaughlin said. “We started with, like $400, so we ran it really lean, I guess.”
McLaughlin didn’t notice any particular lack of resources at St. Ed’s because “I was already doing things on my own. But you have really, really tight-knit relationships. You share ideas, bounce things off each other. The network is really good as well. But fundingwise, there are no resources.”
Perhaps, as Schmidt said, that’s because St. Ed’s program is only beginning to emerge on the radar.
“Everybody knows about McCombs School and UT, but St. Ed’s and the Acton School of Entrepreneurship are sort of lost in the shadow of the giant, longhorn 40 acres. There are amazing students (at St. Ed’s). Certainly those who I have interfaced with are good kids with good heads on their shoulders. They have practical skills and come out immediately productive for any employer. They have enough core knowledge to come into the entrepreneurial world with a good foundation.
“But it’s still a best-kept secret. If you’re walking south on the west side of Brazos just above 7th Street and look down through the portico to the balcony at the Driskill Hotel, you can see all the way to the SEU hill on South Congress. The balcony frames St. Ed’s in its columns. It’s been there forever, quietly and humbly going on about its amazing work.”