Young Hustle, Big Money

Students from the FGCU School of Entrepreneurship are finding financial success.

Jade Gibson

Jade Gibson stands on a small stage inside the WGCU studios on Florida Gulf Coast University’s campus, an electric violin pressed to her shoulder. She watches the strings with an intense focus as she plays “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But this isn’t just any concert, and Gibson isn’t on the stage simply as a musician; she’s also there as a businesswoman. Gibson is part of the university’s Research Roadshow, which highlights outstanding achievements at the school. Her achievement? In less than two years, she’s turned her musical talent into a six-figure business with 12 employees.

Gibson, 22, graduated in December as one of the School of Entrepreneurship’s recent stellar successes—and she’s not the only one. Students are coming out of the entrepreneurship program at FGCU with businesses that are earning them serious cash. We spoke with three local superstars to find out what’s behind the success of these young business minds. Hint: It has a lot to do with focus, drive and an essential leg up from the School of Entrepreneurship.

After the show, Gibson tells me that her dad likes to say that she never learned how to walk. At 10 months, she just started running. “That’s how my entire life has been.”

Her mother started her on the violin at 7, hoping it would give the extremely active Gibson a way to focus. It worked. By her early teens, Gibson was a standout violinist. She started exploring the viola, which has become her instrument of choice, and she also studied classical guitar, harp and cello. In the fall of 2016, she enrolled at Florida Gulf Coast University as a music major.

Gibson’s big break came in two parts. First, she was asked to play at her cousin’s wedding, then a bride contacted the FGCU School of Music to see if she could hire student musicians for her wedding. The school sent out a mass email, and Gibson took the gig. At the end of the night, the bride’s wedding planner told her she had other clients who needed string musicians. Plenty of other clients.

That was in November 2017. By February 2018, Gibson’s wedding music business, which she named Jade Strings, had 20 weddings on the books. Since its creation, Jade Strings has generated more than $300,000 in revenue. In the first two weeks of 2020 alone, the company earned $40,000. At a time when other young graduates are finding their footing professionally or taking time off to travel, Gibson is running a six-figure business. “I’m used to working under pressure,” she says. “In the music world, everything is pressure.”

The FGCU School of Entrepreneurship is tailored to fit students like Gibson. Founded in 2017, the school has launched 407 student businesses since its inception. As of the fall of 2019, businesses owned by FGCU School of Entrepreneurship majors had generated $8.1 million in revenue, and students had raised $3.07 million in funding for their businesses. This remarkable and rapid success is one reason why the school recently ranked 30th out of more than 300 schools in The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine’s rankings of undergraduate entrepreneurship programs. FGCU beat out programs at schools such as Florida State University, Boston University, American University and Drexel University. Sandra Kauanui, director of the School of Entrepreneurship, has seen firsthand the astronomical potential for success of her entrepreneurship students. Like Gibson, these students often show tenacity and determination. They’re frequently students who are dissatisfied in a traditional academic setting.

“These were the students in the past who dropped out of college because they had all these other great, innovative ideas, and they didn’t see any value in sitting in a classroom,” she says. “Look at some of our famous entrepreneurs in the world. They dropped out of college when they didn’t feel college was adding anything to them.”

By offering a project-based approach to entrepreneurship, Kauanui said, these students are able to see real-world applications for what they’re learning. And they’re able to start making an income from their ideas while they’re still in college. Sometimes, a significant income.

At 25, Jeremy Burke has been running his own real estate investment firm for more than a year.

Jeremy Burke will graduate from the entrepreneurship school in May. At 25, he’s been running his own real estate investment firm for just over a year. In that time, he’s earned $70,000 in gross revenue while attending school full time.

“The entrepreneurship program helped shift my mindset,” Burke says. “It taught me the thinking process behind coming up with and innovating a new idea, and I learned how to approach entrepreneurship with a problem-solving mindset.”

He admits that the path to entrepreneurship isn’t easy—and it’s not for everyone.

“I’ve faced a lot of people saying, ‘You need to go get a job,’” he says. “It’s hard, especially when you have doubts yourself. But, for me, I would rather take the risk. The risk to reward of entrepreneurship is exactly what I’m looking for.”

This type of mindset is what successful Southwest Florida businessman Joseph Catti—founder, CEO and president of FineMark National Bank and Trust—looks for in his employees. Catti launched FineMark in February 2007, at a time when the local economy was in serious distress. “People left really good positions with very reputable organizations to get our bank going,” he says. “To me, that really speaks of an entrepreneurial spirit.”

FineMark recently made a $1 million donation to the FGCU School of Entrepreneurship, to be used toward the school’s new facility building. It’s the single largest gift that the bank has made to date. Catti has been involved with Florida Gulf Coast University for more than 20 years in different leadership roles. When FGCU started the School of Entrepreneurship and made a decision to construct a separate building for the program, Catti thought it would be a natural fit for FineMark to make a donation.

Over lunch with Mike Martin, president of FGCU, and Kitty Green, who heads the university’s foundation, Catti was inspired by a new term: intrapreneurship. The word applies to people who are entrepreneurial in nature, but who work for large companies instead of starting their own firms. For Catti, that entrepreneurial spirit means creative people who are willing to give their opinions. As he says, “We like opinionated people.” He also believes that entrepreneurs have a propensity to collaborate before they pull the trigger. The FGCU School of Entrepreneurship, he says, encourages that mentality. “It fosters leadership, technology and innovation, marketing, creativity and the ability to assess risk.”

Jakub Adamowicz

Jakub Adamowicz, who graduated from FGCU in the spring of 2019, embodies all of these qualities. He was one of the first 20 students to enroll in the entrepreneurship program. While there, Adamowicz, 23, launched RoomDig, an online housing and roommate marketplace designed solely for college students.

Adamowicz began by studying civil and environmental engineering at FGCU, but once he got into the School of Entrepreneurship, his focus shifted to real estate. His initial goal was to sell real estate in the million-and-above price-point, concentrating on athletes and celebrities. But Adamowicz took a look around the entrepreneurship program and realized the magnitude of the resources available to him. “If I’d just used that to sell more real estate, I would have drastically undersold this opportunity.”

Instead, he asked himself how he could innovate inside the existing real estate market. He immediately thought about his own experience moving to Southwest Florida from New Jersey, and the struggles he’d faced finding a roommate. What if he could create a solution for other college students looking for housing?

To research his market, Adamowicz took a road trip across the state, visiting the major Florida universities. He slept in his car and stayed at sketchy motels, asking students along the way about how they found their roommates. The common theme? “The solutions that existed weren’t really solutions. They weren’t solving the problems,” he says.

He was 18, turning 19, about to launch his own tech company. Thankfully, he had the good fortune to be surrounded by mentors through the Entrepreneurship School. “Every class I went to, as soon as I walked out, I could apply what I learned to my business. It changed the rate of what I was doing, and it eliminated a lot of risk and failure factors.”

Today, RoomDig has its headquarters in Bonita Springs. The company has six employees, including Adamowicz and his wife. The company has taken in $150,000 over four years, half from sales and half as the proceeds from pitch competitions that won RoomDig equity-free funding.

Adamowicz’s success is a product of his own tenacity and innovative spirit, but he also attributes his rapid rise to the FGCU School of Entrepreneurship. From legal assistance to advice on sales and marketing to overall business guidance, the program and its team of faculty and mentors has helped him find the way. As more students enroll each year, the university is looking forward to building the next generation of entrepreneurs. And those students are looking forward to bringing in big money.