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Updated: October 14, 2022

Backed by wealthy alumni, entrepreneurship centers become mainstream at CT colleges

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Students at UConn’s Startup Studio in Stamford, which is part of the school’s Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship.

A decade ago entrepreneurship programs weren’t mainstream at many college campuses but that’s changed in recent years as schools look to attract more students interested in starting their own businesses, and create stronger ties with the business community.

Several Hartford-area universities have accelerated their entrepreneurship offerings. The latest to join the effort is Trinity College, a well-known liberal arts school that has been expanding its career-oriented programs to include things like tech training.

The school recently launched a new entrepreneurship center aimed at supporting and inspiring students, faculty and alumni who are hoping to turn ideas into action.

All programs — including ones at the University of Hartford and UConn — share similar traits, including strong support from wealthy alumni who offer not only critical funding but also mentorship and industry connections.

Trinity College’s new program got off the ground with funding from 1985 graduate Lou Shipley, a tech executive who was CEO of several software companies, including Black Duck Software, a provider of open source security and management services that was acquired in 2007 by Synopsys Inc.

Shipley, a current member of Trinity’s Board of Trustees who got his MBA from Harvard, is also a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Danny Briere, a serial entrepreneur and consultant, is leading Trinity College’s new Center for Entrepreneurship.

He said his immediate goal is to get students to look at the world in a new way.

“In the first year, we will be very focused on really getting students involved in helping them build their innovative and entrepreneurial mindset,” Briere said. “We will be focused on getting students to think differently about the world in inventive, innovative and critical-thinking ways.”

Entrepreneurship programs are prevalent nationally, especially in the Northeast.

Six of the top 50 best U.S. colleges for aspiring entrepreneurs — according to the online website CollegeChoice, which ranks schools in a variety of categories — are based in New England. Yale University, ranked No. 21 overall, is the highest-rated entrepreneurship college in Connecticut.

Alumni connections

Local college officials said entrepreneurship programs wouldn’t be possible without the support (financial and otherwise) of alumni, including many who have been successful in their business careers and see it as a way of giving back.

Some wealthy alumni even have university centers or buildings named after them.

At UConn, alumni have raised more than $47 million toward supporting entrepreneurship programs, especially the Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. That financial support is for both graduate and undergraduate students taking entrepreneurship courses as a major or minor.

The Werth Institute was established in 2017 by a $22.5 million gift from entrepreneur and alum Peter J. Werth, a philanthropist and founder of ChemWerth Inc., a generic drug development and supply company.

The Werth Institute provides numerous resources, programs, academic courses, funding, mentorship and activities relating to innovation and entrepreneurship. It also offers students programs and supporting ideas that can potentially have commercial application and be used to create new companies.

David Noble

David Noble, managing director of the Werth Institute as well as a UConn business professor, said alumni support “is absolutely critical,” as they serve as mentors and — in some cases — investors to students who want to launch a startup.

“These alum help fund the (Werth) center,” Noble said. “They connect our students in a deeper network. They often employ our students, create internships and mentor them. How have they not helped is the question.”

Noble said the biggest trend over the last decade has been in giving students the knowledge on how to build companies. At UConn, he noted, many students who are taking entrepreneurship-related courses intern with startups at the school’s Technology Incubation Program.

Stephen Mulready

Stephen Mulready, dean of the University of Hartford’s Barney School of Business, said entrepreneurship programs at UHart are backed by various alumni, including Sam McGee and Frank Finelli, who have donated money and time.

McGee is the founder of Samiam Group LLC, a regional specialty food distribution company. He also co-founded Green Egg Design LLC, maker of baseball bat-shaped drinking vessels and environmentally-friendly recyclable materials.

McGee, who is also an adjunct instructor at the university in Black economic entrepreneurship, has brought on students as interns at Green Egg Design and also hired several of them, Mulready said.

Finelli, a UHart graduate who majored in entrepreneurial studies, is the founder of Doughwich, a cookie dough venture. Finelli, Mulready said, is one of the more active members of the university’s alumni association and sponsors UHart’s business pitch competitions.

“They both have really given back; we couldn’t do what we do without the support of alum like the two of them,” Mulready said.

Sonia Cardenas

At Trinity College, Sonia Cardenas, dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs and a political science professor, said the college’s new entrepreneurship center will be supported entirely by new dedicated funds — mostly from alumni — including endowed funds to ensure the center’s sustainability.

It will be centered around creating opportunities for students and can include internships, apprenticeships or other collaborations with corporations and nonprofits.

It’s also intended to help students who wish to pursue product or company launches.

A faculty and staff advisory board will also provide the center, and Briere, with guidance about campus partners and programming.

“The Center for Entrepreneurship will provide any liberal arts major, not just those interested in business or startups, with the confidence and know-how to turn ideas into action,” Cardenas said.

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