story by Lauren Leatherby
special to The City Wire
Editor's note: This is part of a series on various funding aspects of Arkansas’ higher education system. Stories in the series, expected to run through September, include a look at the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship and guest commentary from Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System. See the list of related stories at the bottom of this page for more stories on the topic.
Even many well established businesses can’t boast the creation of more than 100 jobs in six years, but one University of Arkansas professor has those bragging rights. Carol Reeves, the University’s Associate Vice Provost for Entrepreneurship, has led her students to create six successful startups in six years, and that’s not even counting all of the ventures springing from her classes.
“Three teams from this last year are pursuing their businesses, but I don’t count it as a startup until they quit all other jobs and pursue the business full-on,” Reeves said. “Another of my students has started two other businesses, but I only count the one that he started in my class.”
Reeves, recently featured in Fortune as one of the nation’s 10 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs, leads the University of Arkansas’s New Venture Development class, the springboard from which these startups have emerged.
The class is an ingenious formula that sets the University of Arkansas’ entrepreneurship program apart from those of many other schools across the country. Students from multiple disciplines, including engineering and science, join with experienced MBA students to create business models with the finesse to make it in the real world.
“For them to be successful, the groups need to be well rounded,” Reeves said.
Robyn Goforth is an example of one of these success stories. Goforth, who has a PhD in chemistry and biochemistry, decided to take the New Venture Development class in 2009 with her friend Misty Stevens.
“Our plan was just to take a class together and learn something. We never could have predicted what came from the experience,” Goforth said.
Reeves combined scientists Goforth and Stevens on a team with experienced businessmen Michael Thomas and Paul Mlakar. Together they formed BiologicsMD, which produces a drug that battles osteoporosis.
BiologicsMD won nearly $630,000 in business-plan competitions and was recently awarded $2.3 million from the Department of Defense.
The BiologicsMD group gained greatly from Reeves’ advice and hard work.
“Everything you put into it, she will match you in effort,” Goforth said.
Reeves’ knack for entrepreneurship began at a young age.
“My siblings and I grew up in a very poor family. We were poor when it came to money, but we were rich in other things,” Reeves said. “My parents were very educated, and all of us graduated from college. We were always looking for ways to make money growing up, so that was really how I became interested in it.”
Reeves worked hard doing “just about everything” during her childhood — working on a farm picking peas and okra, making and selling pot holders, cleaning houses and mowing lawns.
“I didn’t call it entrepreneurship, but that was all I knew growing up,” Reeves said. “I am interested in how entrepreneurship can help make people better.”
Her experience in entrepreneurship grew when her husband began developing and marketing his first board game during the time she was getting her PhD.
“It’s your money, so you’re trying to figure out fixed costs versus variable costs, like do we get a 16-piece injection mold that costs about half of a cent apiece versus a 12-piece that costs a penny a piece?” Reeves said. “It just made everything real to me, the marketing and everything. I was just learning so much about business through that experience that I wanted my students to have the same experience in class.”
This background gave her a good idea about how to integrate hands-on entrepreneurship into the classroom.
Reeves began a student-run business called Students Acquiring Knowledge through Enterprise (S.A.K.E.) for students to gain hands-on expertise about operating a company. Reeves remains very involved with S.A.K.E. and is a member of the board, but has not taught the class for several years.
For the students she mentors through both S.A.K.E. and the New Venture Development class, she advises one thing in particular.
“Find something you’re passionate about, because you’re not going to believe how much work you’ll put into it,” Reeves said.
As she learned through personal experience, “people really underestimate how hard it is to start a business.”
Reeves’ model of pairing scientific innovators with business experts also teaches innovators strong business practices.
“She taught us to answer questions in a way that we convey information without the scientific, technical jargon that can complicate things quickly,” Goforth said. “Part of being a scientist is having skill with precision, but all those little details can muddy the waters a little bit. We practiced keeping it short and simple. Learning how best to present was very important for me as a scientist. We tend to be very long-winded.”
In Reeves’ 22 years in Arkansas, she has never been so excited about the state of entrepreneurship in Arkansas.
“I feel like all the pieces are starting to come together, and we’ve got a critical mass of entrepreneurship going on,” Reeves said.
If all goes well, she sees Arkansas developing a great culture of entrepreneurship.
“I want to see more startups coming out of our program. I want to see more students in S.A.K.E. learning about hands-on business,” Reeves said. “I hope to see more faculty members engaged in commercialization efforts like sending their students to these classes or working with companies as scientific officers or advisers, so we can really create a culture of entrepreneurship in the state.”
Reeves is also enthusiastic about the furtherance of entrepreneurship within the Walton College of Business itself.
“We have a new dean who started July 1, and I think he’s very supportive of our entrepreneurship efforts,” Reeves said. “I think you’re going to be hearing a lot more. We’ve made a lot of strides and progress, but I think the next couple of years, you’re going to see things explode, which is really exciting to be around. I’ve wanted it to be this way for 22 years.”
With a local environment encouraging to small-business growth and Reeves’ impressive record of six startups in six years, the Northwest Arkansas businesses community is sure to see some fresh new ventures join the scene in the coming years.