A Growing Roar

ABOVE Chicken Salad Chick founder Stacy Brown with Harbert College Dean Bill Hardgrave and entrepreneur Kevin Harrington (right).

The U.S. Department of Commerce in 2013 released “The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University” — a report looking at the ways universities had begun to promote entrepreneurship on campuses across America.

Auburn University got the memo. 

Supporting student entrepreneurial efforts is happening with gusto at Auburn University with the Entrepreneurship Summit, now in its third year. 

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Hosted by AU’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, the event pays tribute to alumni and students from each of the university’s 12 degree-granting colleges and schools, through events held at the Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center. 

Says Raymond J. Harbert College of Business Dean Bill Hardgrave: “Every year we look to make the event bigger and better, and we’re looking forward to a great event this year. We’re focused on the quality of the event and recognizing great people, alumni and businesses and the efforts of Auburn University.” 

The Summit kicks off March 30 with the Hall of Fame awards program, which recognizes alumni who, through their entrepreneurial determination, have made major contributions to their professions. 

Hall of Fame awards will be presented at a gala dinner where one Hall of Fame honoree will be inducted, along with awards for an Entrepreneur of the Year and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. 

The 2017 Auburn University Hall of Fame inductee is Walter Woltosz, a 1969 AU engineering graduate who founded Words+ Inc., a company that designs, manufactures and sells computer-based communication systems. He later founded Simulations Plus Inc., a leader in pioneering drug discovery and simulation software for conducting drug research.

Jack Nix, a 1967 AU business graduate and owner of Nix Investments, will receive the Spirit of Auburn Family Entrepreneurship Award. His ventures include developing the Riverchase Antique Gallery in Hoover, which became the state’s largest antique mall. He and his son also opened other antique malls nationwide, along with Hoover Self-Storage, rated as the nation’s No. 2 self-storage business in 2010. 

Nix credits his success to the Auburn Creed and recalls how he flunked out of Auburn University in 1958, but returned in 1965 and graduated in 1967. “Look at my transcript and you would never think I was the same student.”

The 2017 AU Entrepreneur of the Year is 2004 business graduate Jon Butts, founder and president of Muscle Up Marketing, whose clients are health and fitness clubs and other membership-based businesses. The company was ranked 40th among the nation’s fastest-growing companies on the 2015 Inc. 5, 000 List.

“Of the 39 that were ahead of us, I highly doubt there were any that started with $1, 000, ” says Butts, whose company was also recognized by the Atlanta Business Chronicle as among the city’s Best Places to Work.  

Two recipients will receive the Young Entrepreneur of the Year this year. Justin Lambert, who earned an engineering degree from AU in 2007 and an MBA in 2008, is founder and CEO of The Mint Julep Boutique, a leading online women’s fashion retailer. After being fired from another job, Lambert started the Auburn-based company in 2012 and has driven triple-digit growth each year. “When one door closes, another opens, ” he says. 

Also the recipient of the Young Entrepreneur of the Year is Stephen Viahos, a 2009 AU business graduate. Viahos is co-founder and CEO of Bellhops, a full-service, tech-enabled moving company that has raised more than $27 million in venture capital from Silicon Valley investors. 

The Chattanooga-based company grew out of The Dorm Movers, a freshmen move-in day service started in 2011 by Viahos and Cameron Doody at Auburn University. Bellhops has been featured in a number of publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Entrepreneur magazine, and was nominated for Best New Startup at the TechCrunch Crunchies Awards in San Francisco.  

March 31 is the Top Tigers awards luncheon, where fast-growing companies founded or run by alumni will be recognized. This event is presented in partnership with Business Alabama magazine and the accounting firm Warren Averett. Nominees are evaluated on revenue growth and their ability to operate following the Auburn Creed, the longstanding code that expresses the university’s underlying values.   

This year’s Top Tigers keynote speaker is Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Belfor, a privately held $1.5 billion disaster recovery and property restoration company based in Birmingham, Michigan that operates in 31 countries and employs 7, 000 people. 

Yellen has appeared on “Undercover Boss, ” the CBS show where corporate executives secretly take low-level jobs in their companies to discover how their company operates and what their employees truly think of them. 

ABOVE Dasher Technologies President and CEO Laurie Dasher questions a Tiger Cage competitor while serving as a judge.

Also March 31 is the Tiger Cage competition, Auburn University’s clever take on ABC’s Emmy-winning reality show “Shark Tank, ” where aspiring entrepreneurs compete for funding and the chance to bring their business concepts to fruition.

During the Tiger Cage competition, Auburn University student entrepreneurs pitch their early-stage product ideas and business plans to a panel of judges, who decide if an idea is worth sinking their teeth into, or in AU’s version, their claws.   

Auburn University is awarding the grand prize winner $10, 000 and $15, 000 in legal assistance, $5, 000 for second place, $2, 000 for third and $1, 000 for fourth. About 20 teams, representing the spectrum of Auburn’s academic disciplines, will present their ideas and products, from apps to dental hygiene to music business. 

New this year is the Junior Tiger Cage, which will give Auburn High School student entrepreneurs the same opportunity to pitch their business ideas to the panel of judges. Some of the participants competed in early December at an Alabama Launchpad event in Auburn. 

Also new this year is an accelerated 10-week summer program offered by AU’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business to help the winning Tiger Cage teams further develop their budding businesses. 

“We don’t want the Tiger Cage competition to be the end, ” says Lakami Baker, associate professor of management and managing director of AU’s Lowder Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship. “The program will put the students through intense training and take them to the next level. We want to provide students with additional support and maybe funding.”

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Auburn.

Text by Jessica Armstrong

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