Connecting experience to innovation

| October 14, 2012

Bob Vosburgh (from left), Marti Beller, Kaitlyn Haskins ’15, Jenness Gough ’13, Victoria Mills ’13, Tom Scott, Leah Busque, Tom Loftus and Jo Ellen Parker. The students, including Hunter Stoner ’14,
who is not pictured, organized the Salt Block Awards and dinner.

The Salt Block Project, a student-run initiative of Sweet Briar’s business department, hosted its second Entrepreneurship Awards Dinner Thursday, Oct. 11, in Prothro Dining Room. Jenness Gough ’13 handed out the “Salty Awards,” as they are informally known, to recognize recipients in three categories.

Past Saltys have honored local business leaders, but in keeping with this year’s “Experience to Innovation” theme, students selected individuals whose personal and professional experience led to the creation of a new and impactful product.

The first was Marti Beller, CEO and co-founder of PlanG, who received the Salt Block Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Nonprofit Organizations. PlanG aims to revolutionize charitable giving with an online product that lowers the cost of fundraising for 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S., offers businesses a new way to incentivize customer loyalty, and makes giving easier and more meaningful for individual donors.

Bob Vosburgh was recognized as Entrepreneur of the Year for Health Care for his company’s development of Survey Vitals, a proprietary electronic feedback survey with the potential to transform patient and doctor experiences through organizational improvement. A former Air Force fighter pilot and aeronautical engineer, Vosburgh is founder and president of 9g Enterprises.

Hilary Cook ’05, director of strategic partnerships at PlanG, talks about why she wanted to involve Sweet Briar in her company’s social media strategy.

The third Salty, for overall Entrepreneur of the Year, went to Leah Busque, a 2001 Sweet Briar computer science graduate. In 2008, Busque gave up a cushy job programming at IBM to start TaskRabbit Inc. — all because she didn’t want to go to the store for dog food. TaskRabbit is a website that lets people and companies outsource odd jobs to pre-screened “runners” who bid against one another for the work. To date, her company has raised $40 million in funding and operates in nine U.S. cities.

The evening’s theme highlighted two hallmarks of the business program — its entrepreneurial brand and experiential learning — and the connections between them. In her remarks at the podium, President Jo Ellen Parker noted that Sweet Briar has further embraced entrepreneurial thinking as an institutional strategic priority — although some may find the notion paradoxical for a liberal arts college, she said.

But it doesn’t mean lopsided recruiting for the business major or embarking on ventures unrelated to the College’s mission, Parker told an audience that included educators, investors, CEOs and company presidents.

“What it means is that we see many, many points of connection between the value of a liberal arts education and the qualities that make for successful entrepreneurs,” she said.

An entrepreneur creates value in whatever sphere she inhabits, Parker said, be it a business’ goods or services, a nonprofit’s social or cultural contribution, or a college finding new “populations of learners,” as Sweet Briar is trying to do.

Following Parker at the podium, Tom Scott, the College’s director of entrepreneurial initiatives and chair of the business department, addressed how the experiential component of the curriculum fits the strategic initiative. The program excels at finding opportunities for students to apply theory in the real world, he said, citing partnerships with local employers such as Centra and Edison2 on student projects that provided real value to the companies.

But, he said, the companies his department hopes to engage with going forward — those trying to make the transition from startup to sustainable business, much like the three award recipients — need more than one-semester solutions. The challenge is to provide consistent services through school breaks and ever-revolving “personnel.”

Scott revealed that Beller’s PlanG, which launched in June, is willing to give his department that chance by hiring the College to direct its social media marketing. Research and analysis to define a strategy is under way this semester by students in Marketing and Social Media. The school will be remunerated if the customer is satisfied with the performance.

Beller took an interest in Sweet Briar several years ago when she was president of Affinion Loyalty Group in Richmond and an employee, Hilary Cook ’05, asked her to speak at her alma mater. “I come here regularly because I so connect with what you’re trying to do here,” Beller said when she accepted the award.

“When we came here to talk to classes, not only did I marvel at what they were getting to learn that I never did, … ” said Beller, a former computer programmer, “but we got to actually push up against those experiences and learn ourselves. And meet people like Amrit [Judge ’14] who would look at us with a little bit of a judgmental eye and say ‘Why aren’t you doing this and why aren’t you doing that?’

“And even though I can explain in my mind why we’re not, I like that she pushes us because I know one day we’ll be there to push her back.”

Beller noted that PlanG is still in its infancy, but she was struck by what Parker said in her comments, because the company serves nonprofits, individuals and brands with one product.

“We have created that sweet spot between creating commercial value, social value and educational value all together. And the partnership with Sweet Briar is really that educational piece.”

Contact: Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Business, Community of Entrepreneurial Educators