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It’s cocktail hour in the den of a quiet suburban home in Norfolk, Virginia, in the mid-1960s. Sandy Kauanui is 16 years old. She hasn’t started college yet; or quit after her first year. She hasn’t launched her own wildly successful financial services firm. She hasn’t yet earned her bachelor’s degree or her master’s or her PhD. She hasn’t started teaching at Florida Gulf Coast University or become the driving force behind its entrepreneurship program. She hasn’t had her name put on the school she helped found: the FGCU Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship. All of that is still in the future.

Right now, she’s sitting on the couch listening to her parents talk business. Her older sister is there, also listening. Her mother’s drinking water with a splash of scotch; her father’s drink isn’t much stronger. Neither is a big drinker, but they honor the nightly cocktail hour as a time for the family to sit down together and talk shop. Kauanui and her sister are rapt as their parents share details of the dry-cleaning business they own together, 50 stores across Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Newport News. Though sometimes they’ll go over problems with the business, mostly they exchange ideas about how to grow the company. They discuss the economy, real estate, the stock market and investment securities.

“That’s the environment I grew up in,” Kauanui says, reflecting on those early adolescent cocktail hours. “Some parents talked about sports or other things. We sat around and talked about new business opportunities.”

At 16, she was already running payroll for 500 employees in her parents’ company. It was fun for her. When other kids were begging to go to summer camp, Kauanui wanted to work in the family business. She was so good at it and found so much energy in the entrepreneurial world that college couldn’t compete. She remembers sitting in her freshman classes at the University of Cincinnati thinking, “This is boring. I’d much rather be talking to my parents.”

“My mother and dad didn’t have more than a seventh-grade education,” Kauanui says. “They wanted us to go to college. But I only survived one year before I left to come home and start a business.”

And start a business she did. Kauanui launched her own financial services firm, West Financial, which she grew over the next two decades to more than 40 employees. She sold the business in 1996. 

Meanwhile, she was focusing on her education. She received a BA in interdisciplinary studies from Virginia Wesleyan University, then an MBA from William & Mary, then her doctorate in organizational behavior and entrepreneurship from George Washington University. After many years of dedicated academic work, the woman who left college early became Dr. Sandra Kauanui.

It wasn’t long before Florida Gulf Coast University began recruiting her for its nascent business school. Kauanui and her husband were living in California at the time. “Let’s go to FGCU for two years and then I’ll retire,” she said to him. That was 14 years ago. Her husband still likes to tease her about it. “Those two years didn’t work out real well, did they?” 

Kauanui laughs at his teasing, but she’s serious in her response: “I wouldn’t have stayed this long if it hadn’t been for seeing this vision and creating this opportunity.”

The vision she’s talking about is what’s known today as the FGCU Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship. The entrepreneurship program was formally created in 2016, but it was an image in her mind long before that. “I wanted to create a place for the kids like me,” Kauanui says, “the ones dropping out because they didn’t think school fit them. For so many years, I was ashamed that I didn’t have a degree. I was running a successful business, I had a weekly TV show, I had a newspaper clipping come out every week, and I felt like an imposter because I didn’t have that degree. I don’t want my students to have the regrets I did. I want my students to graduate with their heads up high.”

Runaway program

One of the most forward-looking initiatives to come out of the School of Entrepreneurship is its Runway Program. Launched in 2016, the program serves as a business incubator for students, alumni and veterans. Those who complete the program have the opportunity to pitch for non-equity seed funding that comes from donors. In 2020-2021, 64 businesses completed the program. Of those, 32 received funding. A total of $142,790 was awarded.

Each project pitches for a specific amount of capital. There is no limit to how much capital a project can request, though participants are encouraged to only ask for what they need, and entrepreneurs can pitch again as a business grows and expands. Participants are not required to pay the money back. The program is open to both FGCU students and alumni of any major.

Some notable recipients include FGCU senior John Ciocca, the app developer who created youBelong, a social networking platform for those with disabilities; FGCU grad Andrew Townsend, who created the Cattyshack Café to help adoptable kitties find homes; and grad Makenzie Whitaker, who authored The Kidney Kronicles to help children and families understand illness. 

Since the Runway Program began in the fall of 2016, student and alumni participants have generated more than $12 million.

An entrepreneurial echo system

When Kauanui set out to create FGCU’s entrepreneurship program, she wanted to establish a system that would promote what she calls “echoes in the community.” Her goal: graduates would stay in Southwest Florida, start their businesses here and then echo their success back to the university. This would encourage the next wave of new entrepreneurs to stay local, creating a hub of innovation.

The program is well on its way to accomplishing this mission. The entrepreneurship major is one of the fastest-growing majors at the university. In the spring, 62 students graduated from the program. This fall, 98 students declared an entrepreneurship major. Entrepreneurship students have launched 472 businesses since the program’s inception in 2016, and it was recently recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the top undergraduate entrepreneurship programs in the country.

FGCU’s president, Michael Martin, has seen the enormous benefits of the program both to the university and the Southwest Florida community. “One of the things we intend to do as a regional comprehensive institution is to continue to contribute in every way we can to the economic and social development of Southwest Florida,” Martin explains. “We’ve seen our entrepreneurship students start businesses, hire employees, generate revenue, pay taxes and get involved in community leadership. We’re putting out people who can make a major contribution to the local economy.”

The true impact of the School of Entrepreneurship will take years to fully manifest, Martin acknowledged. But he’s confident that the results will be greater than expected. “We’ll look back with real pride at this innovation that came out of FGCU with an impact no one could have predicted.”

No one? Well, one person.

“We can be the next Silicon Valley,” Kauanui says. “Who’s to say not?”

You can teach entrepreneurship

Tim Cartwright, a partner at the wealth management firm Fifth Avenue Family Office and recent chairman of the FGCU foundation, remembers sitting with Kauanui in the Lutgert College of Business long before FGCU had an entrepreneurship program. The two were brainstorming ideas to improve the university and enhance the local community. What would be really special, they decided, was to have an entrepreneurship degree. That’s when Kauanui leaned forward. “I’m willing to take on that challenge,” she said. 

Since that moment, Cartwright has watched Kauanui go from teaching a class on entrepreneurship to receiving approval for an entrepreneurship minor then an entrepreneurship major to creating her own entrepreneurship program separate from the college of business to constructing a building on campus dedicated to the School of Entrepreneurship. “The only way we were going to be successful was if the person who led this initiative had the entrepreneurial mindset to push through boundaries and commit the kind of energies necessary to scale growth,” Cartwright says. “That’s Sandy.”

One of the greatest assets Kauanui has brought to the entrepreneurship program, Cartwright believes, is that she’s an entrepreneur first and an academician second. That means Kauanui focuses on hiring adjunct faculty with real-world experience; she’s less concerned with where they got their degrees and more interested in what they’ve done. “That’s the kind of knowledge our students thirst for,” Cartwright says. “Real-world practitioners who have sold a business or who are in the middle of scaling a business have much more connection to the business world.”

This kind of practical, hands-on connection is essential to what Kauanui and the School of Entrepreneurship set out to achieve. “At one point in time, people thought you were either born an entrepreneur or not,” Cartwright says. “But we know now that you can teach someone how to think and act entrepreneurially.” 

As it turns out, an entrepreneurial mindset is important even for those students who don’t start their own businesses. Many School of Entrepreneurship grads go on to work for Fortune 500 companies. “The entrepreneurship degree is a different way of learning,” Cartwright says. “Our students know how to identify real-world problems and find solutions. And these big companies are saying, ‘We want to hire problem solvers.’”

The spark

On a typical Friday during the school year, FGCU senior John Ciocca is on the first floor of the new School of Entrepreneurship building in front of a whiteboard. His buddies and a few professors are there, winding down from the week. This is how they unwind: Somebody calls out the idea for a startup business. Ciocca writes it on the whiteboard. They riff on the idea for a while—expanding, challenging, questioning. Someone calls out a second business idea. Ciocca writes it on the board. They weigh this one, too. When another group of entrepreneurship students walks by, Ciocca invites them over: “Hey, come hear our pitches.” The second group joins the first, and a mini-pitch session unfolds. “Those are some fun times,” Ciocca says. “It’s not structured. We just let our brains run free.”

FGCU’s School of Entrepreneurship students are unlike any other students on campus. Ciocca remembers the time he found himself inside the wrong classroom. He’d stumbled into an accounting class instead of an entrepreneurship class. The lights were off. The students were all on their phones. No one spoke. “They were sitting there like mummies,” Ciocca says. “I sat down, looked around and said, ‘This isn’t my class.’”

That feeling—“this isn’t my class”—is exactly what Kauanui was talking about when she set out to create the entrepreneurship program six years ago. Ciocca is the kind of student who, like Kauanui, might have thought college was boring compared to the real world. He was designing apps in high school, and by the time he got to FGCU he’d already launched a successful social networking site for people with disabilities called youBelong. Now he’s working on Purple, an online financial platform for those with disabilities. 

Yet rather than finding his college classes boring, Ciocca has stayed engaged at the School of Entrepreneurship. That’s because the program has an energy and a vibrancy. He calls it “a spark.” That spark is more than just the students and the new building, Ciocca said. It’s Kauanui herself. 

The first time Ciocca met Dr. K, as he calls her, he said to himself, “This woman is fierce.” Now, after four years of seeing her in action, he understands why the program has been so successful. “She’s an absolute force.” 

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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