Money moves

University of Houston receives historic $13M gift for its entrepreneurship program

UH's business school just received its second largest gift ever. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

University of Houston's C.T. Bauer College of Business has received its second largest donation to benefit its entrepreneurship program.

The Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship, which was recently ranked the top undergraduate entrepreneurship program in the country, received the $13 million gift from its namesake foundation — The Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Family Foundation — and the state of Texas is expected to match an additional $2 million, bringing the total impact to $15 million.

"Our family is deeply committed to the ideals of entrepreneurship," says Cyvia Wolff in a news release. "Our business personified everything that it means to be an entrepreneur. The skills, the thinking, the mindset are fundamental to success for business leaders today and in the future. On behalf of my late husband, we are truly honored to ensure the entrepreneurial legacy not only endures but remains accessible for students. We are truly honored to be part of this program and university."

The money will be used to create three endowments for the program. The Dave Cook Leadership Endowment, named for the center's director, Dave Cook, will be created and funded with $7 million of the donation to support leadership within the organization. For $4 million, the center will create the Wolff Legacy Endowment, which aims to increase students involved in the center, as well as the companies coming out of the program. The last $2 million will be used to create the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Endowed Chair(s)/Professorship(s) in Entrepreneurship. This initiative will support research and community outreach.

"We are passionate about entrepreneurship and how it can forever change students' lives," says Bauer Dean Paul A. Pavlou in the release. "We seek to further promote entrepreneurship as a university-wide, even citywide effort, by collaborating within and across the university in a multitude of areas, such as technology, health care, arts and sports."

The program was created in the mid '90s and was later renamed after Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff in 2007, and has seen great success over the past decade. In that time, Wolff students have created 1,270 businesses, with identified funding of just over $268 million. According to the release, the program has been ranked in the top two spots of the Princeton Review's top undergraduate entrepreneurship programs for nine of the past 12 years.

"Entrepreneurship is crucial for the future of our country, as well as our city and state," says UH President Renu Khator in the release. "We are proud to be at the forefront of work around entrepreneurial training and research. The uniqueness of our program has and continues to make it the model program. This extraordinary gift ensures our leadership in this space will continue and will support the creation of businesses, change communities and impact our students' lives."

At UH, 2,500 students take at least one entrepreneurship course a year, and more than 700 students complete certificate programs.

"What we are doing is transformative in the lives of students, mentors and stakeholders in a way that elevates everyone towards excellence," Cook, who was named the director of the program in 2017, says in the release. "The impact of this gift allows us to remain the leader and to move forward with confidence, purpose and permanence."

Lean methodology aims to help startups reduce risk and helps entrepreneurs make better, more efficient decisions. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

There are few things riskier than launching a new business. You could run through a mine field and have a better chance at living than launching a successful, long-lasting business. In fact, the Harvard Business School even reported that three out of every four startups fail. Fortunately, a new process has come to light that was designed precisely to reduce the risk of starting a business. Lean startups champion trial and error over detailed planning. Customer feedback over "gut feeling." Cyclic processes of design over traditional development.

Some lean startup ideas have already gone mainstream because they've proven to be so effective. The principles of "minimum viable product" and "startup pivot" have become so engrained in modern business that even university business colleges have begun to teach them.

There are three key aspects of the lean methodology.

Educated guesses

Number one: Instead of spending a year conducting research and planning long-term, lean startup entrepreneurs go with the idea that all they have on the first day is a bunch of unproven ideas. Guesses, really. These entrepreneurs forego the traditional business plan and opt instead to give a Cliff Notes version of their big idea using a template dubbed "business model canvas." It's pretty much a diagram that shows how a business generates value not just for its consumers, but for itself.

Field work

Number two: Lean startups use an "out and about" method for testing their ideas. It's a kind of customer development. They go "out and about" and basically interview potential customers, interested people, and people on the fence about all aspects of their business. How's our pricing compared to others you've seen? Do you like our product features? What do you think of our strategy? Lean startup entrepreneurs amend their ideas based on the feedback they get from customers. That's the beauty of the lean method: it's based on your willingness to change directions based on new information. Sound familiar? Well, it should. I just described pivoting. A lean startup concept now adopted by major corporations.

Agility means stability not fragility

Number three: The software industry bore a method called agile development. Agile development cuts down on wasted time because it emphasizes the ability and willingness to change directions and adapt fast. That's what agile means. To move quickly. There's a company named RoofProtect Pro that created a chemical they thought would appeal to homeowners looking to reduce shingle rot. Turns out there wasn't really a demand for reducing shingle rot. It wasn't as big a deal as the RoofProtect Pro founders had hypothesized. However, after speaking with business owners they discovered there was a demand for something to help reduce rust and deterioration of signage. RoofProtect Pro went back to the drawing board to build and test a prototype for a chemical that reduces rust and staining on different material like concrete and metal. A year later RoofProtect Pro became SurfaceSustain and obtained over $2 million in venture capital funding.

Now that's agility!

It's no surprise, then, that in the high-stakes world of business, a methodology designed specifically to reduce risk would prove successful. Lean methods don't guarantee success, of course, but the principles it holds dear do help strip away a lot of wasted time and energy and have proven to be highly efficient. Now, if there's an antidote to riskiness, it's got to be efficiency. Efficiency tightens a business to bare bones so there is little room for big risks to hurt your venture.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.