Alabama colleges commit to entrepreneurship programs

Entrepreneurs in residence, on-campus business accelerators and more support startup businesses

University of Alabama student entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship programs are taking center stage in higher education as more Alabama business schools hire dynamic program managers and invest in expanded offerings to cultivate budding entrepreneurs.

Three of the state’s top universities, University of Alabama (UA), University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Auburn University (AU), are among those institutions committing more heavily to students interested in entrepreneurship, as well as enterprising faculty and community members. Success stories are emerging from their increased efforts.

The universities are empowering students, no matter what their major, to pursue their big ideas, whether it be learning to effectively run a solo artisan enterprise or kick off what could become a multi-million-dollar technology venture. They also are preparing students to become more creative, productive employees for companies that put a premium on innovation.

By cultivating entrepreneurship, higher education is fostering economic development and creating a healthier “business ecosystem” across the state, says Joshua Sahib, managing director of the Lowder Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship at Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business. “We use a pipeline model, which allows for multiple entry points, enabling us to get students from across campus excited about entrepreneurship and participate,” he says.

Auburn students can take an introductory entrepreneurship course, minor in entrepreneurship and find mentors. They may participate in workshops, networking, competitions and research. They also can take advantage of ongoing business counseling and support by veteran entrepreneurs in residence at Auburn’s New Venture Accelerator.

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Sahib, who was hired about a year and a half ago for his new full-time position, formed and serves as an advisor to Auburn’s entrepreneurs club, which is open to any interested student. “It doesn’t matter if a student has a business background or if they’re still at the ideation stage, we’ve got ways to provide support,” he says.

While it was once thought that it took a certain type of person to become an entrepreneur, educators now know it’s possible for anyone, says Patrick Murphy, Ph.D., director of the J. Frank Barefield Jr. Entrepreneurship Program and Goodrich chair and professor at UAB’s Collat School of Business.

Modern research has shown entrepreneurship is a function of being energized by an idea and being in an environment that spurs on one’s ability to develop that idea, Murphy says. “There really is no set entrepreneurial personality,” he says. “There are only traits we associate with being entrepreneurial, such as boldness, which can be motivated by an idea you feel passionately about.”

Murphy has revolutionized UAB’s entrepreneurship program since he came online in 2018, including developing an entrepreneurship major and transforming the university’s entrepreneurship minor. He’s raised millions of dollars for the program and brought tenured and adjunct faculty onboard. “We’ve redesigned the course work, practicing what we teach,” he says. “We need to be just as enterprising as entrepreneurs looking for novel new ways of doing things. Everything we do should have inspiration, impact and ingenuity.”

Innovative programming includes the Coding Academy, a competitive entry program that provides students training in various technologies. “Student entrepreneurs need to be armed to use all the tools they may need, whether it be AI (artificial intelligence) or how to work with a website designer,” Murphy says.

Through the Blazer Hatchery and Hackathon, teams vie to find creative solutions to community problems such as this year’s challenge “How to elevate our city,” or a past contest’s focus on solving two related problems, transportation and underemployment in the area. Team members work with Alabama Power executive leaders as part of the process. The winning team receives $5,000 to use any way they choose, Murphy says. “It’s a great way to give students experience in using an entrepreneurial mind set to solve problems,” he says.

One of his program’s student success stories is Alex Cox, founder of Watercraft Warehouse, a jet ski purchase and sale company located in Trinity. Another is Rae’mah Henderson, recently accepted for a Goldman Sachs remote internship. She currently serves as operations coordinator for The Plug and is committee chair for the Black Innovation Alliance.

UAB students and Patrick Murphy (middle) attend the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization’s conference.

Last year UAB’s entrepreneurship program was recognized as the nation’s Model Emerging Program at the Excellence in Entrepreneurship Education Awards of the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. “My goal is for the entrepreneurship program to become its own department within the school of business,” says Murphy, who also serves as scholar in residence at Innovation Depot in Birmingham, one of the country’s largest entrepreneurial co-working/incubation centers.

Other universities also are supporting entrepreneurship through partnering with or sponsoring incubators and accelerators. While Innovation Depot has been a part of the Birmingham business community since 1987, UA’s The EDGE is relatively new as is Auburn’s New Venture Accelerator. Unlike Innovation Depot, which is run by a nonprofit, UA and Auburn’s facilities are managed by the universities.

The genesis of UA’s state-of-the-art incubator and accelerator, open to student, faculty and community entrepreneurs, was a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant following the super tornado that hit Tuscaloosa in 2011. “The tornado caused massive destruction and loss of life. The community was devastated,” says Theresa Welbourne, PhD, who serves as executive director of UA’s Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute (AEI) and The EDGE business incubator.

Welbourne is an entrepreneurship professor in UA’s Culverhouse College of Business, which currently offers an entrepreneurship minor, as well as a management major with an entrepreneurship concentration. The school also now offers the Crimson Entrepreneurship Academy, a nine-week business program held in the summer, allowing students to create their own internship by developing an enterprise, she says. The competitive program, which provides a stipend, is sponsored by the Medical Properties Trust organization and its founder, CEO Edward Aldag Jr. “It’s been a game changer for the curriculum,” Welbourne says.

She explains that The EDGE was born from a strategic alliance of UA, the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce and the City of Tuscaloosa. The facility assists the mission of AEI to serve as a magnet for entrepreneurship, providing workshops, mentors, networking and workspace. “Wonderful things are happening here through partnerships,” Welbourne says. “Our alumni, experts in different fields, have been generous with their time, whether through providing virtual or in-person sessions.”

The AEI efforts are threefold, Welbourne says. Find entrepreneurs, help them start their business and help their business grow.

One of the ways AEI finds entrepreneurs is through contests. The Edward K. Aldag Jr. Student Business Plan Competition, for example, provides $100,000 in prize money plus mentoring and coaching along the way. Faculty and staff can participate in a similar competition that awards $40,000, and there’s $30,000 in prize money for the community competition. “Money talks, helping generate new businesses,” Welbourne says.

Another competition, River Pitch, awards ten $1,000 prizes to the best 3-minute business pitches. There’s also a reverse business plan competition where students are given a problem and create a plan to solve it.

Welbourne came on board in 2016 to prepare for the 2019 opening of The EDGE. With 26,300 square feet of space, the facility comprises 20 offices and co-working space. “The program was originally housed (from 2012 to 2019) in a facility provided by Regions Bank. It was called ‘the incubator for the incubator’,” Welbourne says.

Among the new incubator’s success stories are Ambulnz, a provider of mobile medical services and transportation in 26 U.S. states and in the United Kingdom. The successful start-up went public in 2021, has ramped up to three shifts, and now is ready to move. “They are looking for the right location,” Welbourne says.

Camgian, which was established in the new incubator, provides AI-enabled software platforms that drive decision automation and course of action recommendations. Having grown from two to six offices in The EDGE, it relocated to its current location in Tuscaloosa. “Businesses typically graduate from the incubator in two to five years, giving us space to house new start-ups,” Welbourne says.

Auburn’s New Venture Accelerator (NVA) also is relatively new, having been kicked off by an alumni endowment, says Lou Bifano, NVA director. It’s early version, started in a makeshift space in 2016, has given rise to the accelerator’s new 7,000-square-foot presence, opened in October 2021. The NVA is located on the first floor of Auburn’s Research and Innovation Center.

One of the special things about the NVA is its entrepreneur-in-residence program, which offers students, faculty and community members access to the expertise of successful entrepreneurs. Jennifer Nay, for example, retired early following a lucrative career and sale of her businesses. “Jennifer has a passion for our mission,” Bifano says. “She’s such an inspiration and a role model, particularly for our female students.”

Among the NVA’s other entrepreneurs in residence is Walt Swift, a marketing expert who promotes the NVA, including through its informative website, as well as assisting entrepreneurial students and startups. His five marketing student interns support new businesses with branding, social media and media campaigns. “Our interns are offering invaluable assistance and gaining job experience,” Swift says.

Among the students who have taken advantage of NVA and other entrepreneurship resources is Auburn football player Malcolm Johnson Jr. Like many people destined for success, he’s written out his goals. “As I continue my Auburn University interdisciplinary studies focusing on leadership, marketing, and family business and entrepreneurship, I’ve reached out to as many people as I can to learn as much as I can,” Johnson is quoted on his NVA profile.

Holli Michaels and Marianne Madsen of AbGlo were finalists in Auburn’s Tiger Cage competition. Photo by Julie Bennett/Media Production Group.

Among its many efforts, the NVA runs the annual Tiger Cage business pitch competition, which is designed to discover, coach and reward enterprising student teams. In its eighth year, this year’s competition culminated on March 31 when four semifinalist teams vied for $54,000 in start-up funds.

Among recent success stories from the Tiger Cage competition are SwiftSku, an application that connects point of sales at convenience stores in real time, enabling owners to remotely manage and monitor their stores. The SwiftSku team also won the prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition against MIT, Harvard and UCLA, bringing in $400,000 for their business.

Another Tiger Cage success story is Vulcan Line Tools, which provides hardware, software and services for the electric utilities industry. Founder Zac Young won first place in the SEC Student Pitch Competition. “We feel it validates what we are doing when our students win major competitions,” Bifano says.

Kathy Hagood is a Homewood-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the April 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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