Photo by Judy Watson Tracy

Chris Bongiovanni '07MBA. Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

Taking Ownership

Rollins brings MBA students and local entrepreneurs together to teach the skills of growing a successful business.

By Warren Miller ’90MBA

With 10 years of experience as a software executive under his belt, Chris Bongiovanni ’07MBA made a life-changing decision: to start his own business. To prepare for this risky venture, he earned a Rollins MBA at the Crummer Graduate School of Business, then, upon graduation, took a position at a local education technology firm. A few years later, Bongiovanni was ready to take the leap to entrepreneurship, but he realized he needed “a few more tools in my toolbox.” So he enrolled in an entrepreneurship class at the Crummer School to gain experience writing business plans—then used that experience to write a plan for the company he plans to launch.

Photo by Earl Kogler

Jessica Combs '06 '08MBA (l) and Kim Hahn '96MBA

After difficulty conceiving her first child, former banking executive Kim Hahn ’96MBA decided she wanted to help educate other women on the subject. In 2003, she made a bold move: she left the security of her corporate job to start Conceive magazine. Realizing she needed some additional fundamentals to grow her business, she enrolled in Rollins’ MBA program, where she specialized in entrepreneurship. Her publication took off and was acquired in 2009 by global publisher Bonnier AB.

Bongiovanni and Hahn reflect a growing trend: more and more people—from seasoned business executives to young MBA graduates fresh out of school—want to own their own business. To meet the needs of these aspiring entrepreneuers, in 2004 Rollins’ MBA program added entrepreneurship as an area of concentration—the first new concentration in 15 years. With 20 percent of Crummer’s students, entrepreneurship is now the school’s fastest-growing concentration.

“It used to be that MBA students had their sights set on a career with a major corporation,” said Craig McAllaster, dean of the Crummer School. “But times have changed. Increasingly, business students are looking to acquire the skills they need to launch their own business, and corporate executives are leaving established careers to start their own companies.”

Starting a business is more difficult than it looks, however, and while the fundamentals learned in the classroom are important, so is practical experience. “The more business experience one has before going out on his or her own, the greater the likelihood for success,” McAllaster said. “So, in addition to bringing seasoned entrepreneurs to the classroom to share their insights with students, we encourage our aspiring entrepreneurs to look for internships or positions in their chosen field in order to gain industry experience, make contacts, and—perhaps most important—learn the subtleties of starting and running a business by working for advanced entrepreneurs.”

Creating that connection between students and skilled entrepreneurs is the job of Crummer’s Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship (CFAE). Originally called the Center for Entrepreneurship, the program was launched in 2003 to provide opportunities for students to work with and for entrepreneurial companies. According to CFAE executive director Cari Coats, hands-on experience is critical. “You can only do so much in a classroom,” said Coats, a former Orlando Magic, Orlando Chamber of Commerce, and CNL executive who now has her own consulting company. “You have to find opportunities for real-world immersion for students. The deeper our network of advanced entrepreneurs, the more chances the students will have to learn in the real world.”

Coats’ main task is developing that network, and fortunately, Central Florida is an entrepreneurial hotbed. Inc. magazine recently rated Orlando as one of the top cities in the country in which to start a business, and the Crummer School, ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the top MBA programs in the country, has strong ties to the local entrepreneurial world. CFAE provides workshops and clinics for entrepreneurs and hosts the local affiliate of AthenaPowerLink, an international organization for female entrepreneurs. “Most of the Center’s events are peer-to-peer events for entrepreneurs, such as CEO forums and roundtables,” Coats said, “and those are exactly the people who provide our students with practical experiences, both in and out of the classroom.”

Strengthening ties to the local business community is a mutually beneficial arrangement, Coats explained. “We need a deep network of advanced entrepreneurs to provide experience for our students, and the entrepreneurs in turn receive value for their participation,” she said. “We can provide entrepreneurs with cost-effective intellectual capital: graduate students who can intern or consult on issues. And that network of entrepreneurial companies helps better prepare our students as future business owners.”

Jessica Combs ’06 ’08MBA received some of that preparation when Crummer arranged for her to intern under Hahn at Conceive magazine. Combs, whose ultimate goal is to start an early-childhood education center, found the opportunity to work closely with a mentor like Hahn to be invaluable. “My MBA studies taught me a lot, but starting your own business would be intimidating with just classroom experience,” she said. “What I learned in the classroom was really enhanced by actually working for a company—especially one that grew so quickly. That experience has made the whole idea of owning a business more tangible for me.”

After earning her MBA, Combs landed a full-time job at Conceive, and when the magazine was sold to Bonnier, she accepted a marketing position at the company’s U.S. headquarters in New York City. There, she is focused on learning everything she needs to know to run her own business. “I’m watching Conceive grow so much bigger than I ever imagined,” she said. “At Bonnier, I’m learning a lot of things that will come in handy when I decide to do my own thing one day.”

Hahn admits that when she started Conceive, she didn’t know anything about publishing. But after adding a Rollins MBA education to her experience as a senior executive with SunTrust, she felt she had what she needed to run a successful business. “My MBA classes taught me how to ask the right questions,” she explained. “And that’s how you become a success. If you want to succeed, you look to increase revenues, control costs, and monitor your cash flow. Yes, all of us had to learn the publishing world, but our passion for the subject made it seem like something other than work. We stuck to the fundamentals and budgeted constantly.”

Hahn now returns to Rollins each semester to mentor aspiring entrepreneurs. Her favorite topic? “Exit strategies,” she said. “Everyone wants to know your exit strategy, and how they’ll get their money back, before they’ll invest in your company.”

Bongiovanni is a giant step closer to launching his own business, thanks to the business plan he wrote at Crummer. The plan, which won the Rollins MBA Venture Challenge competition in 2009, will serve as the foundation of his future company—one that will develop software and services to help local governments and school boards manage information in a way that satisfies their growing requirements for transparency while reducing their IT costs.

In the meantime, Bongiovanni continues to sharpen his skills in his role as chief technology officer at eSchool Solutions, a public-education firm that offers many of the services he wrote about in his plan. “I am fortunate to have found a company where I can utilize my skills as a CTO as well as cross into other departments and wear many hats,” he said. “Although I do not own the firm, I am getting a tremendous amount of experience in all facets of running and growing the business, gaining the insight and knowledge I will need to do this on my own.”