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History of Nebraska Entrepreneurship Starts With Students

Preparing Future Entrepreneurs at Nebraska
Preparing Future Entrepreneurs
Blake Lawrence, '09 & '11, shared how his entrepreneurial journey started at Nebraska. His story adds to the strong history of Nebraska Entrepreneurship which started with students asking the Legislature for funding for the first course.

After suffering four concussions in a little over a year, I had to figure out who I was because I was no longer a football player. The College of Business helped me figure out the next part of my life. During class as a junior, I stood up and interrupted Sam Nelson, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and professor of practice in management, and pitched an idea that I couldn’t get out of my head. Sam turned around from the whiteboard. In that moment, he could have said ‘Sit down, and shut up. I’m teaching,’ but he let me share my vision uninterrupted, and then encouraged me to pursue the idea with conviction. I bought the domain name that night and started my first business within 24 hours.”
- Blake Lawrence, ’09 & ’11, co-founder and CEO of Opendorse

The Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship prepares students to lead the future in business, whether they are pursuing ideas for a business, owning a franchise or exploring career options. The faculty and staff in the center serve as advisors, mentors and collaborators for thousands of students each year who are ready to start or grow something.

“Nebraska was one of the first states to dedicate a Center for Entrepreneurship more than 35 years ago. Our future is bright and built upon a strong history,” said Samuel Nelson, ’11, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and associate professor of practice in management.

1977 - Hiring the First Entrepreneurship Professor

Roommates Bill Jackson, ’77, of La Jolla, California, and Bob Nelson, ’77, of York, Nebraska, conspired to start the first entrepreneurship course at Nebraska in 1976.

“Bill couldn’t believe there wasn’t an entrepreneurship program. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a focus on training kids get them back to their hometown to make it more successful. Together, we conspired to get an entrepreneurship class,” said Bob, who noted their effort was documented by the Daily Nebraskan student newspaper. “Bill called the head of the state’s Appropriations Committee, set up a meeting and received $30,000 for the specific purpose of hiring an entrepreneurship professor.”

After both Jackson and Nelson graduated, Robert T. Justis came to Nebraska to teach and supervise the development and administration of a new Small Business Institute at the college. As he developed the precursor to the center, he also expanded the curriculum, including adding a course on franchising. He also wrote the book “Franchising.”

1980s and 1990s - Building a Strong Foundation

A finance major, Paul Hogan, ’85, took the franchise course and joined forces with Justis to start a franchise club. He credits the club for helping him learn how to be his own boss. His passion for franchising led him to impact lives worldwide by founding Home Instead, a global home health care company.

“One of the first things I learned was if you own a franchise, there’s a 95% chance of success, but I also knew that less than 5% of independent businesses make it,” said Hogan, who helped reinvigorate the franchise club in spring 2022.

“Paul models success for students by showing how taking a chance in college to initiate a venture can cause a ripple effect for positive change around the globe. He is a great example of how you can do big things when you start at Nebraska,” said Kathy Farrell, James Jr. and Susan Stuart Endowed Dean and professor of finance.

 In 1988, Robin Anderson was hired as the founding director for the Center for Entrepreneurship and brought a renewed vision. To generate more interest in entrepreneurship and encourage students to stay in Nebraska, he partnered with high schools and chambers of commerce across the state.

“We invited high school students and their families to an annual conference hosted in Lincoln, where students competed to win the Young Entrepreneurship Award and a college scholarship. We also invited college students from around the nation to the same event to pitch their ideas in a business competition,” said Anderson. “The dual event created a pipeline and strong connections.”

Lizz Whitacker

For my business and me, the Center for Entrepreneurship made a world of difference. I had started my current company, Pawlytics, while I was a student. The Center for Entrepreneurship helped me get some clarity and gave me some tangible, quantifiable milestones to identify and hit. One was the New Venture Competition and I ended up winning it. I knew we were onto something good and it propelled me to go full time with the company.”
- Lizz Whitacre, ’17, founder of Pawlytics

Anderson started the Nebraska Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, an entrepreneurship club and leading student trips to more than 20 countries. Due to these efforts, the center received the 1997 National Model Entrepreneurship Program Award.

“Robin established the foundation for our Center for Entrepreneurship, and his influence can still be seen in the center’s offerings. He was instrumental in helping students hone their entrepreneurial skills and gain a global mindset at Nebraska,” said Dean Farrell.

2000s - Start at Nebraska for Entrepreneurial Success

With the addition of an entrepreneurship track in the management major, the curriculum began to expand at Nebraska in the 2000s. An entrepreneurship minor was created for any university student, regardless of major in 2017. The Nebraska Family Business initiative also took off with support from the Abel Family.

In 2021, the student-led Husker Venture Fund started to provide hands-on investment experience to students of any major while providing funding to early-stage startups in the state. Built by alumni and university supporters, the student-led HVF selects students based on their performance in an eight-week Venture Bootcamp. Also in 2021, the center and the Clifton Strengths Institute collaborated with Nebraska Athletics on the Accelerate program. The program helps Husker student-athletes identify, strengthen and activate their name, image and likeness (NIL) potential.

“Nebraska is leading the way in NIL and Accelerate helps prepare students by sharing our business, entrepreneurial and strengths-based education. We are leveraging our distinctive offerings at the Center for Entrepreneurship and the Clifton Strengths Institute, as well as interdisciplinary curriculum created through campus partnerships to benefit students long term,” said Dean Farrell.

This year, the center established the Community and Campus Fellows programs with 90-plus business and university leaders. They serve as guest speakers, mentors, competition judges and advocates, and provide real-world experience and support.

“What sets Nebraska Entrepreneurship apart is we meet students in any major where they are across the university,” said Nelson. “We also have multiple specialty programs centered around entrepreneurship across campus, and we bring those programs together. We build a sense of community with more students involved than most of our peers.”

With continued collaboration and support from the Nebraska Business community, Nebraska Entrepreneurship continues to drive momentum so students start here for entrepreneurial success.

Published: December 5, 2023