From passion to possibility

Teaching young men how to turn an idea into a profitable business has long been a course at the School of Hard Knocks, but, thanks to some new programs and the help of alumni, it is now part of the curriculum at Hampden-Sydney College.

The Center for Entrepreneurship and Political Economy (CEPE) offers many opportunities for students to develop the skills to implement new ideas, including the Business Leaders Lecture Series, the 90-Day Entrepreneur Boot Camp, and the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative.

The entrepreneurship program began organically a number of years ago when Charles Cabell '74 approached Dr. Justin Isaacs '95, an associate professor of economics and business, with the idea of having a business development contest (Isaacs now runs the entrepreneurship programs for CEPE). Under the guidance of the economics department, students would compete for venture capital by creating a business plan, writing a letter of intent, and pitching their concept.

Justin IsaacsNow only a few years later, this simple contest has evolved into a two-year program designed to teach and inspire budding entrepreneurs at Hampden-Sydney; it is the pinnacle of the entrepreneurship curriculum at the College.

Along the way, Isaacs recruited more alumni to hear students pitch their ideas and to provide constructive feedback-a forum now called "The Tiger Den." Warren Thompson '81, Todd Flemming '85, Andy Freitas '92, and Dr. Lawrence Caplin '86 were some of the first alumni to get on board, listening to 30-minute pitches from aspiring entrepreneurs.

"These guys were floored by how cool it was," says Isaacs of the alumni. "They have been tremendous supporters."

The CEPE has since developed a network of alumni in business who serve as mentors and advisors for Entrepreneurship Fellows, students who are identified as having particularly innovative ideas or a passion for entrepreneurship.

"Hampden-Sydney has the potential to be on the cutting edge of training students to be entrepreneurs," says Isaacs. "No other field of study than the liberal arts has the scope to prepare students for entrepreneurship. We teach them to be critical thinkers in a wide range of topics, and you won't find a bigger group of risk takers than young men, 18- to 22-years old, who decide to go to an all-male college. If you take out the top-25 universities- the Harvards and the Yales-I think we are the best positioned college in the country right now for teaching entrepreneurship."

Some of the best ideas for new businesses and innovations are coming from students outside of the economics department. Isaacs says many of the leading concepts being pitched are coming from science majors. For example, Barrett Polan '12 and Jordan Harless '11 used contact lens technology to develop a magnifying cell phone screen cover. Polan, who is a student at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, got a patent for the idea and is talking to potential investors to begin manufacturing.

Polan says, "The CEPE entrepreneurship contest was one of the hallmarks of my Hampden-Sydney education and gave me an insight into entrepreneurship well beyond the classroom. Thanks to the guidance of Justin Isaacs and the panel of judges, I was able to capitalize on a good idea and move it into an arena where it can prosper under guidance from industry experts."

"It has been hard for us to attract non-economics guys," says Isaacs, "but so many of them have great ideas. We want to attract students from all over campus to this program."

Isaacs would love more students from the humanities to participate in the entrepreneurship program, not only because he thinks they have the potential to have creative ways to present ideas but also because entrepreneurship extends beyond business.

"Entrepreneurship is about innovation, looking around at your surroundings and figuring out what's missing. You can do that in any field."