I am a strong believer that it’s critically important to build an ecosystem to encourage entrepreneurial development in our state. One of the keys to accomplishing this goal is the support and emphasis from our institutions of higher learning. There are some innovative things going on around the state including a strong commitment from Millsaps College. The school recently hired serial entrepreneur Joe Donovan to be its director of entrepreneurial development. I knew that Joe was an innovative entrepreneur, so I was interested in learning more about him and Millsaps College’s plans.
Donovan grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and went to the University of Cincinnati. While there, he also attended paramedic school at the University of Dayton. Formal academic paramedic training was brand new, and he participated in the fourth class of this type in the country. I don’t know how he juggled being a college student and a paramedic school student, but it’s an early example of Donovan’s drive and work ethic. Donovan ended up having a 20-year career as a firefighter and retired in his late 30 as chief of the fire department in a suburb community of Cincinnati. In 1992, American Medical Response (AMR) recruited him to Jackson to be the director of operations for Central Mississippi, so he moved his wife and six children to Jackson. The company had recently gone public and was experiencing some growing pains. During his tenure with AMR (which later became Laidlaw), he ended up being divisional CEO for all of Mississippi and Louisiana.
In 2000, Donovan had the opportunity to co-own Emergystat, a medical response company based in rural Alabama. During his four years with the company, they expanded from servicing a few counties in Alabama to Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas, Florida and South Carolina with revenues over $60 million. In 2004, they sold the company to a publicly traded entity. Donovan had also earlier had the opportunity to start another business in 2002 called Pro Derma, a contract manufacturing company. Donovan and his business partners were extremely creative in obtaining available government grants, low interest loans and favorable lease terms to finance their new venture. They based their new company in a business incubator in Kemper County. Donovan and his partners ended up forming two related companies: Phama Pac, which provided contract manufacturing for over the counter drugs; and, Allan Pharmaceuticals, which was a pharmaceutical development company. His companies eventually had over 180 employees, six facilities and over $30 million in sales. In 2010, Donovan sold his various businesses, and because of his long relationship at Millsaps, he was excited to lend his efforts to the school’s focus on expanding its entrepreneurship program. Donovan was a 1995 MBA graduate of Millsaps, and his youngest daughter graduated from there in 2010.
What is particularly interesting to me about Donovan’s story is how he was able to finance his growing ventures. He figured out how to work with federal, state and local organizations to find creative financing. According to Joe, “One of the key things I learned is that you have to seek out help and not be afraid to ask for it. There are plenty of organizations out there interested in helping entrepreneurs.” While not a native Mississippian, I was excited to hear from Donovan that he considered Mississippi a great place to do business. He noted, “One of the real assets in Mississippi is the network of available relationships and the openness of people to help.”
For budding entrepreneurs, he had the sage advice that the key to success is “intelligent perseverance.” According to Donovan, “You will always encounter naysayers, but you need to believe in your mission and have the courage to act on it.” While you don’t want to be bull-headed and ignore reality, you also have to have the confidence to endure the obstacles along the way. Without traditional bank financing or angel capital, he could have easily given up on his dreams. Instead, he persevered and created a sizable organization creating jobs and opportunities for many people.
In his new role at Millsaps, Donovan will be leveraging his experiences to impact students and the community. The entrepreneurial program will have multiple components including social outreach to help midtown Jackson businesses and partners. They will be collaborating with other entrepreneur focused organizations around the state including the Mississippi Technology Alliance. It is important that groups work together, not in isolation, to help grow our entrepreneur ecosystem. I am excited that Millsaps has made the commitment to this program and to work together with other organizations to improve our state.