Is Minnesota Carlson The Best-Kept Entrepreneurial Secret?

The Carlson School overlooks Minneapolis.

In 1986, when the University of Minnesota’s School of Management was officially named after Curt Carlson, it was the former businessman and hotel mogul’s vision to see the school become a “mecca for would-be entrepreneurs.” It wasn’t until about two decades later, after Carlson’s passing, that CSM Corporation founder Gary Holmes gifted the school with a transformational amount to turbocharge entrepreneurship through the creation of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship.

Curt Carlson’s dream for the school has become a reality: Through its programming, the Holmes Center is accomplishing nothing less than the revival of a university and region. Highlighting the programming is the Minnesota Cup, which has grown into the largest statewide startup competition in the country. It was launched in 2005 by Scott Litman and Dan Mallin, both MBA students at Carlson at the time; nearly 15 years later, 15,000 entrepreneurs have participated in the Minnesota Cup, and alumni of the event have collected nearly $400 million in funding.

The Holmes Center also serves as a support for the Grow North accelerator, which focuses on food and agriculture innovations and startups, and it’s been instrumental in growing WE*, a group of entrepreneurs and investors focused on growing a community of women founders.

In a wide-ranging interview below, Poets&Quants speaks with John Stavig, who has served as the program director at the Holmes Center since 2005. Stavig talks about the evolution of entrepreneurship at Carlson and the Twin Cities region, as well as the ongoing evolution in teaching entrepreneurship in MBA programs.

What’s happening in the world of entrepreneurship at the Holmes Center and the University of Minnesota at the moment?

John Stavig, program director of the Holmes Center

John Stavig, program director of the Holmes Center at the Carlson School of Management

A lot of what we do in the Holmes Center is connecting our students to programs that we run and alumni in the business community. So if you look at the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Twin Cities, it’s changed dramatically in the last decade with the advent of a number of programs including some of the ones we’re involved in and ones our alumni are leading. There are a lot more accelerator programs and competitions and startup week-type events. The profile of entrepreneurship in the Twin Cities has grown quite a bit and we’re proud that the university has played a big role in that.

We are very much an entrepreneurship center that looks across the whole university as opposed to just staying on the edge of campus in the business school. We were one of the early National Science Foundation Innovation core sites, but even prior to that we were doing a lot in terms of working with students and faculty at all levels and all colleges to help them get started in innovation and entrepreneurship.

We try from the Carlson School to look at the strengths we have and the strategy is to take advantage of the position right in the middle of a vibrant business community. So the engagement we have with the external community on not only a daily basis but an hourly basis is a tremendous resource for us to be able to both be working on projects and interacting and bringing the business community into everything we are doing in entrepreneurship. That allows us to build upon a lot of the educational programs we have and the emphasis on experiential learning both at the Carlson School and across the campus.

What were some things you saw happening in the community 10 years ago that led to where you all are now?

I think it was a number of things. The talent coming out of the university was a part of it and some of the programs that we started the Minnesota Cup 15 years ago that has turned into the largest statewide startup competition in the country. We’ve had over 15,000 entrepreneurs go through that. As I mentioned, a number of our alumni have been involved in bringing Techstars here which has now kicked off its third industry-specific accelerator program. Those types of activities and the Twin Cities startup week efforts have really raised the profile of entrepreneurship in the Twin Cities. 

I think investors are coming here and seeing talent in some of the areas where historically there were a lot of strengths in the corporate sector. There is a lot of talent here around healthcare, enterprise software, and food and agriculture. There’s a lot of talent that are doing entrepreneurial things that might not always be the classic unicorn venture headline but are building really interesting businesses. The Twin Cities has staked a claim in solving meaningful problems and that stems from the healthcare background and computing history in the Twin Cities and really building over the long-term businesses that solve important problems.

How do you all approach the idea or philosophy of teaching entrepreneurship in a university and business school setting?

I think it’s better defined now as a process that can be learned but it’s also a mindset and orientation that I hope we impact all of our students throughout their lives. The biggest change I’ve seen here over the past 16 years is a real shift amongst students wanting to use entrepreneurship as a means to make an impact through their careers. They’re a lot less interested in a paycheck from a company or a lot of them from a potential windfall of a startup exit. Part of the education, I hope, influences them in that direction but I also think it’s a broader generational trend, which is very positive. At the MBA level, we’re seeing a lot more students wanting to come back and develop mission-driven new ventures or long-term projects that they’ll be able to work on long after they’re done with school. We starting to see students come specifically to the University of Minnesota to get involved in food and ag or supporting a vibrant nonprofit and volunteer community.

Those factors combined with a really supportive community and what we’ve built in terms of being able to coach the students and help them through the process. We’re seeing students coming here specifically to use the MBA program as a platform to launch their new ventures.

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