Leading Stories

by Sarah Richards

The UWF Center for Entrepreneurship is a support service for up-and-coming and existing entrepreneurs, acting as a resource for students and faculty.

“For students actually starting a business, we try to pair them with people who have been successful already,” Jim Sparks, program manager of the Center for Entrepreneurship said. “We try to bring in experienced innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders so that students can hear their stories. We’ll provide one-on-one mentoring, guidance, and connections to people who can help. That’s basically what we do.”

Local philanthropist and businessman, Quint Studer, is the Entrepreneur in Residence. “He’s a resource available to our students and faculty who are thinking about starting businesses, so they can make use of his connections with all the business owners in the community in order to help place students,” Sparks said. “They can get a free look at this career that they’re thinking about.” 

Internships, contests, events and a speakers series are just a few of the many opportunities that the Center provides for students who want to see their ideas through. Their job shadowing program provides a one-to-one relationship with employers.

“We had 254 businesses sign up for the first year [of job shadowing], so it’s a great opportunity,” Sparks said.

“Our goal for the Center for Entrepreneurship is to touch most majors. The first year, we had about 73 different majors who attended events.”  Majors ranged from archaeology, geography, and mathematics. “We try to be inclusive—we’re not just business.

“We have a minor and a certificate in entrepreneurship.  The irony of that is that I see a lot fewer business students now.  They’re basically getting it through a class, so I end up working with a lot more psychology, art, criminal justice—the people who don’t have access to the college business classes.”

Morgan Peppers is a Graduate Assistant for the Center and MBA student, who, with Cody Hill, won first place at MuniMod (Florida’s largest civic tech competition) for their fleet management device.

“My favorite presentation is the side-hustle,” Peppers said. “Once a person gets that big job they’re committed to, they might want to do something on the side. You find out what side hustle you need, what’s good for you, and how to benefit from it. I think everybody should watch the side hustle—get that creative mind going.”

One example of a side-hustle would be writing a novel—something that could produce royalties.

The Center’s big event in November is the DaVinci Innovation Celebration, where UWF students can demonstrate their products, services, and ideas.

The idea is to be innovative, entrepreneurial thinkers,” Peppers said, “and the way we try to execute that is to come up with an idea and spend some time making it presentable to pitch to a panel of judges for three minutes.”

Ten thousand dollars in prizes are given away.

Unlike the TV show Shark Tank, you don’t have to have sales or a prototype. Sometimes, it can just be an idea.

“English people should sweep that because of their creative thinking,” Sparks said.  “One of our students is writing a story; he’s a graphic artist, but his idea is to come up with a graphic novel with a new universe.”

For Peppers, DaVinci is “a great gateway to finding opportunity.  This is where you go if you want to compete,” as the judges there are successful themselves.

Working at the Center has been an education all its own for Peppers.  “Not everybody is a business person, but everybody can be part of a business or come up with a business.  It’s an opportunity to get your toes wet without jumping in.”

For Zenani Johnson, the Student Entrepreneur in Residence and a psychology major, the Center is there to help people turn passion projects into businesses.  “You’re able to partner with people in here and get conversations going where you can get feedback from multiple people,” she said. “You’re able to see your vision and dream come to light, and then you’re impacting other people’s lives.”

Johnson founded the Emergency Housing Assistance Program (EHAP), and Sparks was there to help her.  “We are able to house homeless college students so that instead of having to drop out,” Johnson said, “they have a place to stay where they can matriculate through their studies.”

That business model is now being used at four other higher education institutions.

The Center isn’t about what looks good on TV but what actually works.  There aren’t any “curveballs” like on Shark Tank, to which Peppers said, “That’s too intense. What’s more, the money you win doesn’t have to be used to start a business; it is yours to keep, so you can do whatever you want with it.”

The Center is part of how UWF is “creating the next generation of big thinkers,” Johnson said.  “After college, you have to pay people to help you. You don’t have these resources at your fingertips.  You can literally graduate school with your own business model.”

The Side Hustle series happens on Wednesday from 4:30 to 6 p.m., October 23, in the UWF Library’s Idea Space on the ground floor.  Management professor, Dr. Justin Davis, will be speaking. There will also be free pizza. 

At 5:45 p.m., following the presentation, there will be a livestream with Dr. Mona Amodeo, founder of idgroup, as part of a Women Entrepreneurship Week. 

If you have an idea but need ideas of how to present it, visit https://uwf.edu/centers/center-for-entrepreneurship/da-vinci-innovation-celebration/ for more information.