By TED CARTER
Ole Miss football isn’t the university’s only up-and-comer on the national stage.
While Hugh Freeze and his coaching crew have instilled the kind of excellence that gave the football team victories in consecutive years over the likes of the Alabama Crimson Tide, mentors at the University of Mississippi Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship have excelled at helping students take business ideas from inception to market. In fact, no one in the United States does it better, according to the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers, an organization created in 1997 to help create collaboration among the world’s entrepreneurship centers. Nearly 300 universities from the United States and elsewhere are represented within the group.
The organization designated the Ole Miss Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship the nation’s “Best Emerging Program” at its annual conference Oct. 31 in Gainesville, Fla. The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or CIE, shared the award with the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. The North American centers won the top placement after a multi-round judging process that began in July and concluded in October.
“Emerging” is an apt term for the center, it being six months short of its second birthday.
“For the center, this is our first big recognition outside of the state,” said Rich Gentry, CIE director, emphasizing the “strong base of support” among students and alumni.
“In the two years since the center was established, we have been working tirelessly to bring a world-class program to Ole Miss,” Gentry said in a press release. “We’ve got a lot of work to do still, but this award says to me that we’re on the right track.”
In a phone interview from his office on the Oxford campus, Gentry said helping to create successful startups is but one of the goals of the center. At its best, the CIE will help students discover early on what kind of work excites them, he said.
“One thing we are concerned about is the job market for the next 25 years,” he said, suggesting the nation’s business schools can do better in helping students adapt to a changing work world.
Students who “graduated from a business school in 1960 would work for four companies by the time they retired,” he said.
Now, it is “eight companies by the time they are 30,” he added.
A center such as the one inside the university’s Holman Hall, Gentry said, is designed to get students to think more proactively and match them up with what they are good at.
“One of the real challenges is helping students to develop their skills,” he said. “We spend some time helping them identify what they are good at and what they may need to work on.”
The CIE’s executive director, Clay Dibrell, said the national award provides the 18-month-old center the kind of energy and excitement that will help it enhance its programming efforts. Ultimately, the goal is to create an international destination for students “who want to create new ventures in a nurturing environment,” said Dibrell, associate professor of management and holder of the William W. Gresham Jr. Entrepreneurial Professorship.
On its trek toward worldwide notice, the innovation center has had “some pretty cool winners” from its business model competition, Gentry said. These include the Cotton’s Café organic dog treats created and marketed by Janet McCarty. “Her products are now in Whole Foods,” Gentry added, and noted the several thousand dollars she won through top placement in the decade-old Gillespie competition provided money for packaging her product.
Like other competition winners, McCarty took advantage of an invitation to join the university’s business incubator, where work space and mentoring in all aspects of the business’ development are provided.
A more recent Gillespie winner was Tameka Wilson, a student in the Ole Miss MBA program. Her innovation: Nippy Pumps, a breast pump that new mothers can use at work.
“She is an extraordinarily good presenter,” Gentry said of Wilson.
Gentry and Dibrell are the faculty members assigned to the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Gentry oversees student programs, business model programs and student consulting, While Dibrell handles outreach across the state and works closely with groups such as Innovate Mississippi, a Jackson-based organization that fosters entrepreneurship, product innovations and early-stage start-ups.
The center also has an entrepreneur in residence who works with students three days a week.
The CIE is an independent program that runs in conjunction with the university’s School of Business Administration. (Details: 662-915-3737)
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