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Teaching by example

The Institute of Entrepreneurship at Florida Gulf Coast University is no ivory tower. Under founder/entrepreneur Sandra Kauanui, that's how it's rocketed to success.

Sandra Kauanui is director of the Florida Gulf Coast University Institute of Entrepreneurship. Sefania Pifferi photo
Sandra Kauanui is director of the Florida Gulf Coast University Institute of Entrepreneurship. Sefania Pifferi photo
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Less than a year after starting the Institute of Entrepreneurship at Florida Gulf Coast University, Sandra Kauanui ran out of space to house the rapidly growing program on campus. So she did what entrepreneurial leaders do — she figured out how to make it work.

“We went into it expecting 25 or 30 students,” says Kauanui, a retired entrepreneur-turned-educator and now director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship at FGCU. “We’re at more than 340 in the degree program now in 18 months and we have 150 in the minor program.”

The temporary solution was to move the program to the school’s Emerging Technology Center off Alico Road just south of Southwest Florida International Airport, about a 10-minute drive from campus. New faculty and staff to keep up with the rapid growth of the program quickly filled up office space there, so two classrooms were converted into cubicle-filled offices. Classes, meanwhile, are held in two labs that double as business incubator space for the school’s three-year-old Runway Program that assists students and veterans in starting their own businesses.

The goals of the program are heavenly to the labor-starved business community: educate entrepreneurial-oriented students while producing a better-prepared workforce with established roots in Southwest Florida.

And, with quickly proven success, FGCU officials recently authorized Kauanui to organize a $10 million capital campaign for a new, 21,000-square-foot building on campus to house the Institute of Entrepreneurship. Together, it all provides a practical example of what entrepreneurship is all about.

“Being off-campus is particularly hard for our freshmen and sophomores who don't have cars,” says Kauanui, affectionately known as “Dr. K” to students and in the business community. “But we need to be incubated someplace, so we're incubated wherever we can be. That's part of what I teach them. It’s not the ideal situation, but I tell students that this is what we entrepreneurs do. We do whatever it takes to get it started and going.”

Get it going she has. The university’s Runway Program business incubator, seeded by the Naples Accelerator three years ago, benefits students and veterans and is now funded by the university with a $540,000 annual budget. (See related story.) This year’s funding for the Institute for Entrepreneurship is $840,4000. Kauanui also has budget approval to add two new faculty positions for next year.

“Like starting a new business, if you can show demand, then you can raise money,” says Kauanui. “The typical approach for universities to give the resources and then go do it. My philosophy is let’s do it and then they'll give us the resources. I operate as an entrepreneur. That's the difference, and it works.”

Entrepreneurship is one of the five pillars of FGCU, placed alongside student success, academic excellence, health sciences and community engagement & outreach.

“The students from the E.I. program can become part of the next generation of innovative business leaders who can advance the economy, create jobs and attract new enterprises to Southwest Florida,” says FGCU President Mike Martin. “This is central to FGCU’s mission as a great regional university.”

The Institute for Entrepreneurship is a multi-disciplinary program open to students enrolled in all colleges across campus. The philosophy, says Kauanui, is entrepreneurs don't come necessarily from the business college, but rather from the sciences, the arts and other disciplines. With the entrepreneurship degree program, students can combine the core entrepreneur classes with their interests.

Entrepreneur at heart

On being an entrepreneur, Kauanui knows of what she speaks. In 1997, she sold the financial, investment securities and tax business she founded in 1975 in Virginia Beach. “I had a 12,000-square-foot building that I built up from a one-room office,” she says.

She then moved to California for a faculty position at California Polytechnic State University, where she was also president of International Council for Small Business. It was there she received inquiries from FGCU with an opportunity to lead the school’s business degree department. With two children in Florida and two in the Washington, D.C. area, It seemed like the right move.

“I figured I’d be closer to my children, so I would come here and work for two years and retire,” says Kauanui. “That was 11 years ago.”

A college dropout, Kauanui, in the 1970s, found the campus culture and structured curriculum ill-suited for her entrepreneurial spirit. She returned to school while running her business to earn her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts management, then went on to earn a master’s in business administration. 

After selling her business, she earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior so she could  teach. Her goal in starting the Institute for Entrepreneurship at FGCU was in large part to encourage today’s business-minded students to, unlike herself, stay in school.

“I dropped out of college when I was young because I started a business and I didn't see any use for college," says Kauanui. "Through this program students can stay in school, earn their degree and work on starting their business all at the same time.”

Consider recent FGCU graduate Austin Engle. He works at the institute while he continues to develop his own company, LiftUP, which sells customized, affordable necklaces inscribed with inspirational messages. 

“I was going through a tough time in college and soon realized I wasn’t the only one,” says Engle. “Many college students feel isolated or disconnected at some point during their college years. LiftUP was created to give others the opportunity to encourage and support the people around them or a way to lift themselves up.”

That entrepreneurial mindset, says Tim Cartwright, chairman of Tamiami Angel Funds and board of advisors member for the Institute of Entrepreneurship, is highly sought by companies looking to hire, and keep, young talent in the region.

“Almost every Southwest Florida business will tell you workforce talent is the top issue in the region, and I would tell you students coming out of the program can go into any industry and be a valuable contributor,” says Cartwright, also an adjunct professor in the program. 

In-demand graduates

Not all entrepreneur program graduates are ready to immediately start their own businesses, choosing to work for companies before embarking on their own. 

“I tell parents when they come in that whatever their students are learning they can use whether they go to work for somebody or they start their own business,” says Kauanui. “Hertz, Gartner, all the big companies have told me they’ll take our students any day because they’re not just taking tests and memorizing something. They're actually applying it and using it.”

"The reason companies like to see entrepreneurship on an application is because they know they are passionate about what they are doing and they are self-starters. They’re not sitting there waiting to be told what to do next.” Sandra Kauanui

That relationship between the degree program and the business community — its board of advisors is made up entirely of local industry professionals — is mutually beneficial.

“I am convinced that the entrepreneur mindset is what you need to compete in the future,” says Cartwright. “You need to be able to think critically, you need to be able to identify problems and understand how to solve them as opposed to showing up and doing the same job every single day. Companies value the human asset more than ever, and they are looking for critical thinkers and problem solvers like the students who pursue the entrepreneurship degree.”

Kauanui wholeheartedly agrees. 

“Many of our students don't come out of college ready to start a business, but they have a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge,” adds Kauanui. “The companies are happy with what we are doing because they see it as a way of keeping young people in Southwest Florida. That’s a big issue. The reason companies like to see entrepreneurship on an application is because they know they are passionate about what they are doing and they are self-starters. They’re not sitting there waiting to be told what to do next.”


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