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Risky Education

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  • | 3:56 p.m. April 27, 2012
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When Rebecca White meets students and aspiring business owners in the University of Tampa Entrepreneurship program for the first time, she presents them with a hypothetical wager.

Would any of the young business majors cross Interstate 275, one of the busiest highways in Tampa, blindfolded for $1 million?

Although some jokers heartily accept the challenge, most admit they would walk away from the bet. However, White then tweaks the odds by offering the same amount to do it without the blindfold. “That's what our program is designed to do,” she says. “We want to remove their blindfolds.”

However, raising the next crop of students to be savvy risk-taking entrepreneurs has been a challenge for White, who co-founded a campus security firm in 2006 while building a similar entrepreneurship program at the University of Northern Kentucky.

The odds of launching a successful venture, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, are 50-50. Statistics show that half of startups fail by their fifth year after incorporation.

Adding to this White's challenge could be this generation's natural inclination to avoid risks. A recent study by Investment Company Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization of investment firms, shows members of Generation Y are less likely to take financial risks than their parents or Generation X.

To change the risk-averse tendencies of potential and current students, White has tapped the Tampa Bay business community for help. As a board member of Tampa-based lender NorthStar Bank, among other positions in the community, she has created a pipeline of successful Tampa entrepreneurs, such as John Sykes, the namesake of the school's Sykes College of Business, to share their stories and challenges with students.

“We try to spend time reframing the way these young men and women look at risk,” White explains. Another business world success story White recruited is Marty Schaffel, the executive chairman of the $500 million audio-visual firm AVI-SPL Inc., who teaches a class in White's program. “When I met him he said that he always wanted to teach a class on entrepreneurship,” White says. “But he's a University of Florida alumni and that was too far to drive.”

The program's connection with the region's private sector has proven fruitful. When White arrived at UT in August 2009, the program had five students. Now it boasts more than 70. “We actually had to move our meetings into the largest room in the psychology building,” White says.

And in roughly two years heading the program, several companies have come from her tutelage. In fact, Inc. Magazine recognized one of her former student's ventures,, as the “coolest startup.”

Taking a cue from the O. Henry short story “The Gift of the Magi,” founder Nick Chmura designed the website to help with gift ideas for someone's significant other. “You would be amazed at the business plans our students come up with,” White says.

“We have a lot of wins,” White says of the flourishing startups she has mentored. As she gathers her things to rush from the 38th floor of One Tampa City Center back to campus to teach, she gives an elevator pitch for potential entrepreneurs who aren't in the program. “Entrepreneurship is all about people and timing.”


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