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Eight Entrepreneurs Honored by University of Nebraska

Center for Entrepreneurship Presents Four Historical, Four Inaugural Awards
Eight Entrepreneurs Honored by University of Nebraska
Sam Nelson, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and associate professor of practice in management, presents the new Distinguished Entrepreneur Award for out-of-state companies connected to Nebraska to Janna Ronert, founder of Image Skincare and Hush & Hush. The Center for Entrepreneurship honored eight entrepreneurs, startups, advocates and students at the Rococo Theatre on April 18.

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln celebrated eight entrepreneurs from across the state and beyond who positively impact the future of entrepreneurship. Presented by the Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship, the awards honored entrepreneurs, startups, advocates and students at a ceremony held in conjunction with the 37th annual New Venture Competition at the Rococo Theatre, April 18.

"We honored eight outstanding entrepreneurs who have demonstrated exceptional creativity, resilience and impact within our entrepreneurial ecosystem and make the Nebraska entrepreneurial ecosystem so special. Nominated by members of the community and the university, all of our awardees have made a significant contribution to the entrepreneurship ecosystem and enhanced entrepreneurial education at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and throughout the state of Nebraska," said Samuel Nelson, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and associate professor of practice in management.

The center awarded four awards with a long history at Nebraska and added four new awards to include students, advocates and others who are central to the entrepreneurial ecosystem and connected to Nebraska.

Distinguished Entrepreneur Award - Janna Ronert
woman speaking at podium.
Janna Ronert, '87, founder of Image Skincare and Hush & Hush, was honored with the Distinguished Entrepreneurship Award.

Janna Ronert, '87, founder of Image Skincare and Hush & Hush, received the new award for a founder of an established, successful company out of state with ties to Nebraska that inspires and demonstrates continued innovation. Ronert reconnected to her alma mater through the Center for Entrepreneurship, immediately sharing her time, talents and treasure with university students.

"An inspirational and knowledgeable speaker, Janna has been a strong supporter and mentor for students at Nebraska who endeavor to pursue innovation and solve social issues in the world. In 2019, she endowed the Janna Ronert Husker Hustle Scholarship to provide financial support to entrepreneurial-minded students from any college at the university. Her support has been a crucial component in our ability to expand the impact of entrepreneurship across the campus. She is one of the best ambassadors for the university and the State of Nebraska," said a nominator.

Featured in Forbes magazine, Ronert started her own professional skin care company in her apartment in 2003. A native of Hebron, Nebraska, she serves as a community fellow with the Center for Entrepreneurship and returns to Nebraska to mentor students, also engaging with them from afar when needed. Named Florida Business Journal's CEO of the Year in 2016, she was also recognized as Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012.

"I'm a proud graduate of Nebraska, and proud to have grown up in Hebron, Nebraska. When I connected with the Center of Entrepreneurship, I couldn't believe that Nebraska had this entrepreneurial option. My company is in 60 countries now, and as I travel around the world, I spread the word that it doesn't matter where you come from, anything's possible. For those of you with the courage to be the next entrepreneurs at Nebraska, I commend you," Ronert said.

Nebraska Distinguished Entrepreneur Award - Mike Smith 
man in hat accepts award.
Mike Smith, founder of The Bay, received the Nebraska Distinguished Entrepreneur Award.

Mike Smith, founder of The Bay, was honored with the award for a founder of an established, successful entrepreneurial Nebraska company that inspires and demonstrates continued innovation. A long-running award presented by the center, Smith joins past recipients like Brett Thome of Spreetail; Matthew Wegener of ISoft Data Systems/Turbine Flats; Larry L. Snyder of Snyder Industries, Inc., W. Patrick Clarke of Northstar Financial Services Group, LLC; David Graff, Brian Kaiser and John Wirtz of Hudl and Michael D. Hays of NRC Health. 

Originally from Imperial, Nebraska, Smith founded The Bay in 2020 at a mall in Lincoln and fundraised in entrepreneurial ways, like skating across Nebraska and sleeping under a bridge. He started his speaking career at local schools and now travels nationwide while launching companies with a social agenda like Mike Smith Live, his speaker business; and YeaNice, a beanie brand. He moved The Bay to 2005 Y Street and continues to inspire and empower youth at Bay High, a focus program with Lincoln Public Schools.

"Mike Smith has demonstrated his deep care for the many communities of Nebraska through the impact of his work as founder of The Bay/Rabble Mill. From his gritty beginning of starting a skatepark in a mall in Lincoln, Nebraska, with the intent of giving youth a place to feel safe and creative to what it has evolved into now speaks for itself. The Bay is now home to Bay High, the Gap Year program serving young adults and solving workforce development challenges, and so many more opportunities and innovative programs geared towards improving youths' lives. He embodies the entrepreneurial spirit with so much passion, energy and conviction that what he and his team create now will continue to better lives for generations," a nominator said. 

"When I first started The Bay, like any other entrepreneur out there, you don't even know what you're doing, you kind of feel like you're starting a pirate ship. There's like a lot of dysfunction as you're not really sure what you're doing and you hope that it makes it. Then eventually that pirate ship kind of turns into a tight ship. We were able to create something really incredible and I'm very excited about what we do. I'm also incredibly inspired by all the young people sharing their passion for their ideas at the New Venture Competition, as I love hearing a good idea and I'm thankful for the Center for Entrepreneurship," Smith said.

Jeff Vaske Service in Entrepreneurship Award - Vern Powers
jeff and same pose with vern and award.
Vern Powers, '84, CEO of Hastings Industrial Manufacturing, received the Jeff Vaske Service in Entrepreneurship Award.

Vern Powers, '84, CEO, Hastings Industrial Manufacturing, was honored with a new award for his unwavering leadership, dedication and invaluable contributions. Like the inaugural recipient and for whom this award is named, this honor celebrates the recipients' tireless devotion and outstanding efforts, which have significantly impacted the Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship's success. 

"It only takes a few minutes with Vern to feel his energy, passion and sincere commitment to help others succeed. He not only participates and supports initiatives where he is called on for his help and guidance, but he also inspires others through his creative and productively challenging 'what if' questions that have noticeably moved the Center for Entrepreneurship to greater heights and ambitions. The university and the state are lucky to have Vern’s contributions toward our combined success," a nominator said. 

Serving two terms as the mayor of Hastings, Powers leads Vestal's private sector partnerships in the advancement of research and development efforts and guides commercialization efforts. His expertise advises research and development and leads efforts of Vestal from startup through capital acquisition/retention, production and market commercialization. He also served on the board for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, Nebraska Workforce Development Investment Trust and Nebraska Department of Economic Development. Vern worked tirelessly with the Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship for over a decade, and his support helped expand the 3-2-1 Quick Pitch held each fall. He continues to support the center and mentor students.

"I truly enjoyed this journey we've been on. When you get to a certain age, the vibrancy that we get from young people keeps us younger ourselves. If we want to keep great high-paying jobs in Nebraska, some of the elders need to spend more time mentoring young people through the Center for Entrepreneurship. I also want to thank Jeff for bestowing this award," Powers said.

Emerging Venture Award - Sentinel Fertigation 

Sentinel Fertigation received the award for a company less than five years old that has proven successful in creating an innovative offering experiencing early growth and success. The company joins prior honorees like Bulu,, Hurrdat, opendorse, Paysafe, Pixel Bakery, QuantifiedAg, Tavern on the Square and The Other Room. 

man poses with award.
Sentinel Fertigation, founded by Jackson Stansell, '21 M.S. & Ph.D. student, received the Emerging Venture Award.

"Jackson Stansell ('21, founder of Sentinel Fertigation) has been a willing and eager participant in many of the resources that our local ecosystem has to offer, including participating in the Intro to Customer Discovery program offered by NUtech Ventures and the Combine Incubator located at Nebraska Innovation Campus, led by Invest Nebraska. As a recipient of the Husker Venture Fund’s first investment and the LaunchLNK grant through Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development, it is clear that Jackson’s community believes in his vision for Sentinel’s future," a nominator said. "It is clear that their impact will continue to grow and succeed under Jackson's leadership." 

Born out of research conducted in Nebraska's Department of Biological System Engineering, Sentinel Fertigation was established in 2021 with the goal of putting the best technology into the hands of producers. Its "Sentry Network" now serves six states and is growing. As the founder, Stansell offers his time and expertise in his community and at the university. Sentinel Fertigation was selected for the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator’s 12th cohort in the summer of 2023, funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation and co-administered by the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The company also closed a seed funding round of $2.5 million in the fall of 2023, with money raised from farmer-focused investment groups.

"It's a tremendous honor to receive this award, along with the past recipients like QuantifiedAg and opendorse, who are part of the startup ecosystem. The entrepreneurship journey comes with a lot of highs and lows. I'm grateful for my wife, as I couldn't have done it without her support and our Sentinel team, who continue to do the boots-on-the-ground work. It's our nationwide mission to improve farmer profitability, environmental stewardship and productivity," Stansell said.

Startup Executive Award - Erin Stahla

Erin Stahla, co-owner at Stahla Services, was honored for making a positive and significant impact on the growth of the company. She joins prior recipients Dillon Sadofsky of Presage Analytics, John Hogan of Home Instead Senior Care, Joseph Knecht of Venture Tech, Bill Hipsher of B2 Interactive and Joe Petsick of Proxibid.

Based in Lincoln, Nebraska, Stahla Services provides luxury restroom trailer rentals for events throughout Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota. Stahla shares the importance of community at the family-owned company that helped build the culture that helped the company grow. She and her husband and co-owner, Grant, who won the New Venture Competition in 2014, support the Center for Entrepreneurship and are involved in the greater entrepreneurial ecosystem. Both return to campus often to speak in classes and meet with students one-on-one.

"Erin has helped grow Stahla Services by connecting with the external community and developing the internal community. Starting in Lincoln, the business has grown into multiple states and continues to see elevated revenues annually. The sense of family at Stahla Services is also remarkable, and Erin plays a central role in that culture," a nominator said. 

Entrepreneur Advocate Award - Justin Krug
man stands with award.
Justin Krug, account executive at Workshop and founding organizer of the Nebraska Startup Job Mixer, received the Entrepreneur Advocate Award.

Justin Krug, account executive at Workshop and founding organizer of the Nebraska Startup Job Mixer, received the award for playing a crucial role in advancing the progress of Nebraska's startup community through substantial contributions. He joins prior recipients including Christina Oldfather from the Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development, Dan Hoffman from Invest Nebraska and Gregg Christensen from the Nebraska Department of Education. 

"At the heart of the local startup scene, Justin has been instrumental in the success of 1 Million Cups in Omaha, a platform where entrepreneurs meet to share ideas and offer mutual support. His engagement in this program exemplifies his commitment to fostering a collaborative environment for startups to thrive. In his role as president of Scale Omaha, Justin has led efforts to enhance the visibility and viability of the startup community in Nebraska. His work has been pivotal in creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to network, learn and collaborate, thereby accelerating the growth and success of local startups," a nominator said. "His involvement in Startup Omaha Week further demonstrates his dedication to the local startup ecosystem. By helping organize this event, he provided a platform for entrepreneurs to showcase their innovations, connect with investors and gain valuable insights from industry leaders."

Krug's professional accomplishments as an early hire at Workshop and his strategic impact in the business sector exemplify his comprehensive approach to fostering entrepreneurship. He significantly contributed to the company's growth as an account executive and senior business development representative. As the founding organizer of the Nebraska Startup Job Mixer, he facilitated the growth of the startup ecosystem by connecting skilled individuals with emerging companies. This initiative not only helped startups find the talent they needed to grow but also strengthened the overall community by keeping talent in Nebraska. 

"There's a lot of amazing individuals who have played a really pivotal part in making the Nebraska startup community a little bit more vibrant. I just can't say enough how humbled and honored I feel to be on that list of individuals. I am incredibly grateful that I am allowed to work as hard as I do on some of these things outside of work. We have more than 325 registrants for the Nebraska Startup Job Mixer, and it's very rare to get 20 founders in one room, so I'm super enthused to hopefully place some talent in those companies that bring the community together," Krug said.

Faculty and Staff Entrepreneurship Advocacy Award - Dave Lambe
man stands by entrepreneurship sign.
Dave Lambe, chief learning officer with the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, received the Faculty and Staff Entrepreneurship Advocacy Award.

Dave Lambe, chief learning officer at the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, received the award for Nebraska faculty or staff members who demonstrate exceptional commitment and support in fostering students' entrepreneurial endeavors. The recipient of the award actively contributes to the growth and success of student-led entrepreneurial initiatives, showcasing a dedication to innovation on campus and within the Nebraska community. 

"What sets Dave apart is his unique teaching philosophy, which combines personalized coaching, innovative educational strategies and genuine care for each student. His optimism and realism create a coaching style that transforms college experiences, fostering personal and professional growth. His commitment extends beyond traditional lectures, incorporating real-world experiences and hands-on demonstrations to immerse students in the world of entrepreneurship," a nominator said. "The economic impact of Dave's mentorship is substantial, with Engler Entrepreneurship Program businesses collectively generating over $145 million in revenue and creating nearly 130 new jobs."

Starting multiple businesses with his wife, Lambe helped develop the curriculum and teaches in the Engler Entrepreneurship Program at the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources on Nebraska's East Campus. He also initiated the Engler Entrepreneur Camp, a one-on-one growth program, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, he spearheaded CEO School, engaging students and reaching over 100 business owners statewide through virtual sessions. Nominators shared about Lambe's "unwavering commitment to teaching excellence and personalized coaching" while making significant contributions to Nebraska's Engler Entrepreneurship Program since its inception in 2010. Another shared how he "serves as a life and business coach to numerous students," playing a pivotal role in their success.

"Thanks to the Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship, who has done a great job all through the years. I have been teaching entrepreneurship for about 20 years, and it has been my complete joy. As the (New Venture Competition) judges could probably attest: If you could be around the students every day, all day and be around their energy, I'm sure anybody would take my job because it's a great job. I really appreciate all the opportunities I have in the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program. It is a wonderful culture and community," Lambe said.

Student Entrepreneur Award - Eduardo Sicilia Ayala
young man in suit stands with award.
Eduardo Sicilia Ayala, a senior Clifton Builders management and marketing major from Cancún, Mexico, received the Student Entrepreneur Award.

A senior Clifton Builders management and marketing major from Cancún, Mexico, Eduardo Sicilia Ayala received the student award for contributing to the engagement and community of the Center for Entrepreneurship. Displaying hard work in and out of the classroom, the award is given to a student advocate for entrepreneurship on campus, who also embodies innovation and collaboration and energizes other students to do the same. 

"Eddie always elevates the experience by his contributions to the conversation. He believes in the power of the center and has been influential in attracting other great students to engage. He is authentic, competitive, driven and passionate. He's engaged in the classroom, supportive of his peers, a leader in StartupsUNL (a recognized student organization on campus), a winning participant in competitions, and he has grown tremendously throughout his years at Nebraska by prioritizing mentor relationships, extracurricular activities, and community engagement opportunities," a nominator said.

Graduating in May, Sicilia Ayala is a consistent participant and contributor to the college entrepreneurial community. He founded 2%Football, which provides humanized scouting reports for football teams in the United States and Mexico, four years ago and coordinates a team of 12. Sicilia Ayala serves as president of StartupsUNL and a Center for Entrepreneurship Ambassador. He also participates in the cohort-based Clifton Builders Program, which teaches students how to build businesses, teams and communities. An offensive coordinator for the Manzitto team in the Lincoln Youth Football League, he also coaches at Standing Bear High School in Lincoln.

A recipient of the Husker Hustle Scholarship provided by Ronert during his sophomore year, Sicilia Ayala received input and feedback from her throughout his time at Nebraska. Most recently, she served as a judge for the final round of the New Venture Competition held before the awards ceremony in which Sicilica Ayala won first place and $15,000 for his startup.

"The most inspiring thing I saw from Eddie is that he took past advice provided and put it into practice. I can see what the Center for Entrepreneurship has done for him, and he shares his gratitude for the many people who have helped elevate him. That is what a journey is all about because you can't live on an island and be successful. You need a sense of community, people supporting you and people kicking your butt. It's not easy, but you have to take the hard hits — and no football pun intended — and get to the top. I couldn't be prouder of him," Ronert said.

Published: April 19, 2024