If you happened to pass by 5115 Grainger Hall at the Wisconsin School of Business on a Wednesday pre-COVID, you might have heard laughter and applause coming through the closed doors, the relaxed atmosphere belying the fact that some of the biggest names in the Madison startup community were speaking to a rapt audience about their successes and struggles along the road to entrepreneurship.
The Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship’s Distinguished Entrepreneurs Lunch (DEL) has moved online since the pandemic started, but that’s only made the event more popular than ever. Launched in Fall 2013, the lunch invites notable entrepreneurs—the majority of them WSB and University of Wisconsin–Madison alumni—to share their experience and expertise with students interested in entrepreneurship.
“By sharing their own entrepreneurial journey, the alumni do an amazing job both inspiring and educating the students,” says Weinert Center Director Daniel Olszewski. “The examples they share reinforce the concepts the students are learning in the classroom and it is incredibly impactful.”
The series runs during the fall and spring semesters of the academic year with approximately 10-12 lunches held each semester. The low-key format and opportunity for students to meet and ask questions of the speakers has been a success from the beginning, with attendance totaling nearly 3,000 in the past few years alone.
The idea for the luncheon series was the brainchild of Jon Eckhardt, the Pyle Bascom Professor in Business Leadership, an associate professor of management and human resources, and an affiliate faculty member with the Weinert Center. Eckhardt, who is also the founder and principal investigator of the Entrepreneurship Science Lab at the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery, wanted to give alumni the opportunity to get to know and engage with the center, and in turn, have others benefit from their vast knowledge and experience. Lisa Collins, associate director of the Weinert Center, implemented the idea, and together they brought in Joe Boucher (JD ’77, MBA ’78), a senior lecturer at WSB and attorney with deep roots in both the WSB and local entrepreneurship community. Boucher, who is also a board member in the Weinert Applied Ventures in Entrepreneurship (WAVE) program, believed in the idea so much, his law firm, Neider & Boucher, S.C, became the event’s sponsor.
“DEL provides students and faculty at UW–Madison with an opportunity to learn from and build relationships with industry experts,” Eckhardt says. “The alumni and friends of the Weinert Center are people with deep expertise in corporate innovation, entrepreneurship, venture capital, and startup law—an excellent group to learn from.”
Creating pathways, forging relationships
The lunches have also yielded some real outcomes for those who have attended.
“Students have gotten internships, seed funding, and discovered co-founders from the discussions that take place at DEL,” Olszewski says. “It is exciting to know that a student’s entire career path could be altered because they choose to attend that day.”
Erin Tenderholt (BBA ’19) is one such DEL success story. Tenderholt met Tom Tefft (BBA ’82), a former Medronic executive and an executive-in-residence with WSB’s Nicholas Center for Corporate Finance and Investment Banking, at one of the lunches while still in school. Teft became her mentor and first investor in her needle disposal startup, Blexx Technology, upon graduation.
The event has also generated internships. One of this past spring’s speakers, Robbie Reck (BBA ’06), founder of Kilbourn Marshall, called Collins the next day to let her know he’d hired one of the students as an intern.
The speakers represent a wide variety of areas and industries; over the past year, the lineup has included Steve Jacobson (BBA ’83) of Fairway Mortgage, Liza Elena Pitsirilos (BA ’04) of Mighty Peace Coffee, Adam Malka (BBA ’00) of Signature Tracks, and Johanna Wolfson (BS ’06) of Prime Impact Fund.
Building a culture of innovation
Boucher says sponsoring and being active in DEL stems from a desire to build an entrepreneurial community. DEL is a great starting point for young entrepreneurs to envision how they might play a role.
“We’re trying to create a culture of innovation… These innovators can be a business, an industry, they can be education, nonprofit—we don’t care. We’re trying to create an infraculture of participation in the future of the state.”
Boucher says DEL and events like WSB’s hosting of business competitions are pieces of the “matrix” of entrepreneurs and startups in Madison.
And on an individual level, he has a passion for entrepreneurship and seeing entrepreneurs, especially students, succeed.
“Part of the myth—maybe myth isn’t the right word—of entrepreneurship is this notion that it happens overnight, right? That you can come up with an idea, and boom, within months, you’re wealthy and successful—it’s just nuts. The Facebooks and all of these companies that are huge now, it took a long time. You need to hear from people who’ve struggled and have gone through it, what it takes, what it’s about. And is it worth it or not. We have a lot of success stories at UW.”
Entrepreneurs also need to be resilient, to cull through the inevitable advice they’re given, and to learn to accept failure.
Boucher says one of the draws of DEL is that it offers “real people with real stories. I think that’s a big deal, to make it personal. Because when you’re in an academic setting, everything is in the books, you’re reading case studies…This makes it real. Students tell me that they’ve enjoyed it. I’m thrilled that that’s true.”