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Skandalaris provides entrepreneurial experience for innovators

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 10, 2012 - Even if it weren’t housed on the first level of Washington University’s Simon Hall, one would know that the Skandalaris Center is in on the ground floor – both literally and figuratively.

“There’s the old fairy tale about the princess who goes around kissing frogs looking for a prince,” said Kenneth Harrington with a smile. “We sometimes say we’re in the business of kissing tadpoles.”

If so, Skandalaris has smooched plenty of baby amphibians over the years and more than a few have become royalty. Harrington, the center’s managing director, estimates the institution is involved with as many as 700-800 new business venture ideas a year. Since its founding more than a decade ago, that’s been Skandalaris’ raison d’être – to promote a culture of innovation by stationing itself at the headwaters of deal flow, the conceptual stage where ideas begin to germinate.

Some of that work is done through cash. Skandalaris sponsors two business competitions annually, the Olin Cup and the YouthBridge Social Enterprise and Innovation Competition, representing nearly a quarter million dollars in funding for local startups. Harrington said another $150,000 to $200,000 might find its way into innovation grants and other initiatives designed to grow the culture, everything from supporting student clubs to funding travel for competitions where aspiring entrepreneurs can raise capital.

“The whole focus is on the people and having them have an entrepreneurial experience,” said Harrington, who has been a senior executive in seven startups over a quarter century in business. “If you have an entrepreneurial experience and you are comfortable with the uncertainty of entrepreneurship, then that’s a skill you have for life."

Curriculum is another part of the effort. Harrington said the last decade has seen the number of courses that focus on or include entrepreneurial content on campus grow to about 80. A program called the "Hatchery” puts together participants from different schools to create a business plan.

The Hatchery’s diversity of study backgrounds is no accident. In fact, much of the learning at Skandalaris cuts across academic lines.

“In many universities, entrepreneurship is only in the business school,” Harrington said. “Well, then you are not going to have design entrepreneurship in the art school and you are not going to have social entrepreneurship in the school of social work and you may not have the support of our clinics and intellectual property in the law school."

The center's other activities include connections to mentors, dozens of internships and IdeaBounce, a website- and event-based brainstorming initiative where candidates can formulate, connect and pitch business concepts.

Though the competitions get a lot of press for participants, Harrington likes to joke that the money is “just enough to get them into trouble.” Financing isn’t the whole story. It’s still about the people and building the psychology of being a pioneer.

“Most people don’t like uncertainty and yet any time you do something entrepreneurial, it’s about uncertainty," he said. “You are trying to change something. You are trying to improve something. You are trying to impact something.”

Not that being in a start up means being a lone wolf. Despite the romantic stereotype of the independent iconoclast building an enterprise anchored only by an idea and a fierce belief in oneself, the hard reality is that cooperative efforts work better and much of the focus of Skandalaris is on working in teams. Harrington said that statistics show that founders who go it alone fail four times as often as those who build a solid team. That means that just because you don’t have the wherewithal to be a founder doesn’t mean you can’t be an entrepreneur.

Of course, the mix of personalities has to be right as well. The two-scorpions-in-a-bottle approach isn’t always the best model.

“I’ve seen ventures like that where the founders will be in the hallway in front of a hundred people having a knock-down drag-out argument screaming and carrying on,” he said. “Sometimes it can actually be functional, but it’s not what we see as the norm. It’s better to have a team where you understand your differences and make them work for the venture.”

Skandalaris doesn’t just rethink what an entrepreneur is. It also rethinks the nature of enterprise that includes more than commercial ventures but also includes “social entrepreneurship,” a rising phenomenon where the focus of the startup is more than profit and returns a benefit for the community at large.

“Many entrepreneurial education systems or courses focus on the founder and on high-opportunity ventures,” Harrington said. “The fallacy in that is that there is a whole bunch of entrepreneurial activity that doesn’t create huge wealth but that is hugely satisfying and important to society and the economy.”

Skandalaris has dealt with concepts that range from Perennial, which recycles garbage into usable furnishings, to The Blessing Basket Project, which resells woven baskets from artisans in six Third World nations to help lift them out of poverty.

Dave Spandorfer can speak to the idea of social entrepreneurship. The Wash U grad is co-founder of Janji, a sports-apparel company that sells running clothes to benefit efforts in Haiti and Kenya to create sustainable supplies of food and clean water. Founded just this year, the startup came through one of the center’s IdeaBounces and picked up about $15,000 from Skandalaris. It also received travel expenses from the institution to jet off to a Colorado competition where it snagged another $20,000.

“It was awesome to have the money, but more importantly, it gave us the confidence to move forward with this thing,” said Spandorfer during a visit to Wash U last week to present a check to Meds & Food for Kids, a local non-profit that helps fight malnutrition in Haiti. “There would be no Janji if it weren’t for the Skandalaris Center.”

Incidentally, there might not be a Meds & Food for Kids either. The philanthropic enterprise, begun by Patricia Wolff, a Washington University clinical pediatrics professor, also got a boost from Skandalaris.

“It really propelled us forward, launching us to have a very clear idea about our vision, our focus and how we were going to be a sustainable enterprise,” agreed Ashley Holmes, another Wash U alumna who was recently hired on as development officer with Meds & Food for Kids.

Of course, not every brainstorm works out. Over the years, Harrington has seen some good concepts that simply didn’t go anywhere. He recalled one man who pitched a bath towel-like device to allow a swimmer to change out of his wet Speedo poolside without heading to the locker room.

“The idea was clever,” he said, “but there aren't that many people who...are trying to change into shorts in public. If there is not high-value relative to the current approach, then people aren’t willing to change behavior and spend money to do something different.”

Still, the seeds of a successful venture can sometimes emerge out of the ruins of a failed concept as it mutates, proves its value and finds a market. That’s why Skandalaris takes a non-judgmental attitude toward participants. Asked what crazy ideas he’s seen over the years, Harrington rejects the term altogether.

“I don’t see anything as crazy until somebody works it because it could change,” he said.

Until that happens, Skandalaris will go right on kissing tadpoles hoping to bring a taste of success to budding innovators.

“When that happens, you never forget it,” he said. “It’s really very satisfying that you can have an impact. Once that happens, it is with you for life.”