Not a Cinderella story

Published on October 15, 2007

How a C.T. Bauer College of Business entrepreneurship program was crowned #2 in the national rankings

cei_ranking_about3The story of the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation begins and ends with entrepreneurs. And though many have come from humble backgrounds and achieved fairy-tale success, the factors that resulted in the Center shooting to the top of the list compiled by Entrepreneur magazine and The Princeton Review have everything to do with building- block fundamentals and the expectation that successful entrepreneurship is something that can be taught.

The Center’s brief history begins with William Sherrill, the first to teach entrepreneurship at Bauer. Sherrill, a former appointee to the U.S. Federal Reserve System and Director of the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and founder of CEI, worked with the University of Houston to establish the Center in 1993. His was an entrepreneurial success story to emulate: Sherrill owned his own financial consulting business, assisting corporations that were structuring acquisitions, mergers and spin-offs and was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year (Educator) in 1994. A UH graduate, Sherrill, 81, continues to teach and has been instrumental in positioning the Center as a resource for the Houston entrepreneurial community.

He says one factor contributing to CEI’s popularity has to do with a growing demand for entrepreneurs.

“The growth (of CEI) has been a marvelous thing and it’s come about partially because the new technologies and new markets demand a more flexible system,” Sherrill says. Twenty years ago, large corporations hired most of the college graduates. Now small and emerging businesses account for the most hires, and CEI provides a kind of knee-deep intensive and experiential training that appeals to students who heretofore may have thought they didn’t have what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur.

cei_ranking_about2Contrary to popular opinion, entrepreneurship can be learned, Sherrill says. “It’s sort of like playing tennis. Not everybody has the ability to go to Wimbledon but everyone can be taught to play it.”

Daniel Steppe, director of CEI since 2003, has created multiple successful businesses and holds two technology patents. But his most recent innovation was in helping create the CEI Certificate program. The program attracts students from a wide range of disciplines who learn about becoming an entrepreneur in their chosen field or how to operate within a corporation with an entrepreneurial perspective, an approach that’s unusual in an academic playing field typically populated by business majors. Of approximately 1,300 students who take Entrepreneur classes each semester, about 25 percent are non-business students, a number Steppe and others with CEI are working to increase.

“This process is universal and you can teach it across a large horizon,” Steppe says.

One of the keys to success for the program is creating a model for entrepreneurship, and not simply schooling students in the various aspects of running a business, he adds. Part of that focus includes hiring faculty who are actively engaged in real world businesses, Steppe says. Mentors, weekly speakers, roundtable discussions and hands-on opportunities for students to learn negotiating skills from business professionals are crucial ways Bauer supports Entrepreneur students.

In the end, Steppe says, he wants students to take away four things from the program:

1. The sense that being an entrepreneur is do-able, something they can accomplish.
2. The establishment of their own personal definition of success.
3. The knowledge that entrepreneurship is something that can be taught.
4. The understanding that this model for entrepreneurship can be applied to any business they choose – from a small family-run business to a huge industry or non-profit organization.

All the rankings in the world can’t compare to the success stories of individual students who’ve graduated from CEI: The foreign student who started an international translation business which now has 300-plus customers on four continents, and more than $7 million in revenues; the small businessman who three years after graduating from the program runs the largest wedding photography studio in Houston.

cei_ranking_about1Mila Green was working as a tour guide in Russia when a group of U.S. tourists surprised her by pooling their money to buy her a ticket to the United States. As a foreign student attending UH, Green took an entrepreneurship class from Bill Sherrill. At the time, Green had no intention of starting a business, she says. But to support herself while going to school, she worked as a translator and interpreter. The business plan she put together for the class became the $7 million business that Green now owns, MasterWord Services, Inc.

“My business grew as part of my homework,” says Green, BBA ’95. She expresses deep gratitude for all the people in the CEI program who helped her along the way.

“MasterWord was a very small startup when we began in 1993, but this year we expect revenues to exceed $7 million. From planning to operations to problem-solving, I don’t think we’d be where we are today without the exceptional preparation I received from the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation,” Green says.

Another CEI success story unfolded in an unlikely way: Vibhore Jain, BBA ’06, was a CEI student when he took it upon himself to make a large purchase of textbook overruns for the family business, an international book vendor. Jain’s impulse buy of more than 600,000 books didn’t seem like such a good idea when he realized he wasn’t sure where or who the company would sell them to. After his uncles chewed him out at a family gathering, he mentioned his problem to Steppe, who helped him develop a plan. Two weeks later, the entire shipment was sold for approximately $500,000 in a two-week time period (a profit of 450 percent, he says). Now Jain, managing partner of Studium Press, has spun that experience into another facet of the business, an endeavor that takes him all over the globe. “It all kind of just fell in my lap,” Jain says, but Steppe and other CEI faculty, “led me through the steps and taught me how to persist. The caliber of the classmates and the professors with their hands-on approach was exceptional.”

Such success stories are the rule, not the exception when it comes to CEI.

cei_ranking_about4While it’s true that entrepreneurs share certain personality traits, like an observant and curious nature, and a positive sense of urgency, it’s also true that carefully thought out curriculum, enrichment opportunities and faculty who are grounded in practical business experience make the magic accessible to anyone, Steppe says.

CEI Cinderella stories? They abound. But students won’t need fairy dust and magic wands to achieve their dreams, he says.

“We spent a lot of time unraveling the pieces of this puzzle, which we now know is not that complicated,” Steppe says. “This model we’re teaching you is useable in whatever business you choose.”

By Julie Bonnin

About the University of Houston

The University of Houston, Texas’ premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students.

About the Bauer College of Business

The C.T. Bauer College of Business has been in operation for more than 60 years at the University of Houston main campus. Through its five academic departments, the college offers a full-range of undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees in business. The Bauer College is fully accredited by the AACSB International – the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. In August 2000, Houston business leader and philanthropist Charles T. (Ted) Bauer endowed the College of Business with a $40 million gift. In recognition of his generosity, the college was renamed the C.T. Bauer College of Business.