Cultivating Opportunity: Campus Donors Look to the Heartland to Drive "Entrepreneurial Ecosystems"

 Columbus, Ohio. photo: f11photo/shutterstock

Columbus, Ohio. photo: f11photo/shutterstock

News out of Ohio suggests that alumni donors remain bullish on an entrepreneurial business education model that can drive economic development in parts of the country historically overlooked by major funders.

Last month, the Keenan Family Foundation made a $17 million commitment to the Ohio State University Max M. Fisher College of Business to strengthen the university’s expertise in the field of entrepreneurship. According to the school, the Keenan Center for Entrepreneurship will "focus on cultivating students’ entrepreneurial skill sets and create an enriched extracurricular experience around entrepreneurship. The students will be connected to the startup ecosystem in central Ohio and beyond."

Not along ago, I wrote a post examining the various factors contributions to the perfect storm behind the surge of entrepreneurship giving to higher ed institutions. The Keenan Family Foundation's gift to OSU fits neatly into this framework. 

Unsurprisingly, these entrepreneurship gifts typically come from alumni who are entrepreneurs. Dialed into the complex dynamics of the current business climate, this growing crop of donors crafts gifts that reflect their diagnosis for what students need to succeed in a fast changing world. 

This isn't rocket science, of course, but it does underscore tantalizing opportunities for universities. One of biggest drivers behind the explosion of campus giving across the country, including in heartland states like Ohio, is the simple fact that affluent people are more widely dispersed across the U.S. than ever before. Many of these affluent people are entrepreneurs. Many are looking to give back to the alma maters that set them on their path to success.

Consider Tim Keenan's backstory.

He graduated with a Bachelor of Science from OSU and earned a Master of Business Administration from Southern Illinois University. In 1991, he founded the consulting firm High Performance Technologies, Inc., which serves federal government customers, including the Department of Defense, Department of Veteran Affairs, and Department of Justice.

He sold the company in 2011, an in the intervening years, he's acquired the reputation of something akin to an uber-entrepreneur.

An adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Georgetown University and an entrepreneur-in-residence of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, he received Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award, the American Business Award for Best Executive, and the Entrepreneurism Award from OSU's Fisher College (among other accolades).

Keenan is putting his CV to good use. As the CEO of Keenan & Associates, he works with small to mid-sized organizations to provide direction and guidance with strategic planning and development.

"I help them navigate the technology firm growth market to move from one maturity stage to the next," Keenan told WashingtonExec in 2016. "I find it very rewarding when these firms succeed and I can see another entrepreneur move forward."

He also serves as the vice president and treasurer of the Keenan Family Foundation, which he established with his wife Kathleen in 2012. The foundation supports endeavors such as entrepreneurial education in addition to activities such as "orchestra, dance, sports and even counseling entities that assist youth through the many challenges they face."

The Keenan Family Foundation, according to WashingtonExec, enabled the establishment of OSU's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship back in 2015. The center's corporate founding members included The J.M. Smucker Company, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and the Wendy’s Company.

The foundation also established the Keenan Center for Entrepreneurship at Le Moyne College in upstate New York, which seeks to advance the Central New York economy by "utilizing personal enterprise to promote economic development and combat poverty."

Both of these regions, Keenan noted, have been hard hit during the national recessions—and therein lies a second takeaway pertaining to the surge of entrepreneurship giving.

While these gifts often flow to academic powerhouses like the University of Chicago Booth School of Business or UC Berkeley, we're also seeing entities like the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation and the Keenan Family Foundation give to regions—some would call it "flyover country"—that have historically been neglected by major funders.

These types of entrepreneurial gifts can trigger much-needed economic development in areas hollowed out by globalization and automation.

This line of thinking clearly resonates with the Keenans.

"Kathleen and I have dedicated our philanthropic lives to the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem to help regions of the country that need new job development," Keenan said upon announcing the OSU gift.

"Our first endeavor was in upstate and central New York, and now, we have focused on the Midwest. We are excited to partner with the Ohio State University and Fisher College of Business to position the university as a thought leader and focal point of action for the Midwest and the nation as a whole."

Keenan's comment underscores another commonality in recent entrepreneurship gifts. While conventional higher ed "business gifts" tend to take a more global perspective—consider, for example, Jerome Chazen's ongoing support for Columbia University's Jerome A. Chazen Institute for Global Business—entrepreneurially oriented donors set their sights closer to home.

For instance, Allison and Rick Magnuson recently gave $20 million to establish the Magnuson Family Center for Entrepreneurship at Dartmouth College. Its goal, according to the school, is to create a "dynamic hub for faculty, student and alumni connected to any department or school at Dartmouth."

This localized perspective mirrors promising trends from the private sector, where investors are giving heartland cities a second look. As the Times recently noted in a piece looking at AOL co-founder Steve Case's Rise of the Rest initiative:

A growing number of tech leaders have been flirting with the idea of leaving Silicon Valley. Some cite the exorbitant cost of living in San Francisco and its suburbs, where even a million-dollar salary can feel middle class. Others complain about local criticism of the tech industry and a left-wing echo chamber that stifles opposing views. And yet others feel that better innovation is happening elsewhere.

"Elsewhere" could easily be Columbus, Ohio. The city's tech scene is thriving, and the Keenan gift could take things to the next level. Remember: As an "entrepreneur whisperer," Keenan's expertise lies in navigating the "technology firm growth market."

Add it all up, and it's no surprise that these types of gifts are flowing to universities in places like Columbus, New Rochelle, New York, and Greenville, North Carolina. As entrepreneurial incubators, universities provide critical human capital and technological infrastructure to complement privately driven regional economic development efforts.

Again, none of this is news to the Keenans.

"We are confident that the talented students of Ohio State, combined with the faculty and staff, will position the Keenan Center for Entrepreneurship as an impact leader across all industries, and that it will be a driving contributor to job creation in Ohio and the nation," Tim Keenan said.