Alums Share Business Expertise with Aspiring Husky Entrepreneurs

Jolina Li '12 (BUS), left, speaks with mentor Eric Knight '82 (CLAS) during a session of the inQbator business incubator program. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Jolina Li ’12 (BUS), left, speaks with mentor Eric Knight ’82 (CLAS) during a session of the inQbator business incubator program. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Perhaps there’s something special in the water at UConn’s Windham Hall.

More likely, the business success of many onetime occupants of that North Campus residence hall is a pleasant coincidence – and, for many of today’s Huskies being mentored by those alumni, it’s fortuitous as well.

Several graduates who once called Windham Hall their home are among business founders, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and other alumni volunteering their time and expertise to help winners and runners-up in UConn’s inaugural Innovation Quest contest.

Those UConn students and recent graduates received cash prizes to help launch their new businesses, and the equivalent of master classes through a business accelerator program called the InQbator. The weekly training sessions this summer introduced the students to details ranging from intellectual property to niche marketing, with successful alumni returning to Storrs to share their expertise at no charge.

“It was a way for me to give back to the University,” says Jason M. Dodge ’80 (CLAS), ’83 JD, an attorney with the Glastonbury firm of Pomeranz, Drayton, and Stabnick. He gave the budding entrepreneurs a crash course in patent law, trademarks, managing risks, and other logistics.

“They were incredibly intelligent and motivated, and I was very impressed and proud of them,” Dodge says of the InQbator participants, who are currently honing their business plans and talking with potential investors, some of whom are alumni they met through Innovation Quest.

Dodge is also among several UConn alumni volunteers who, coincidentally, lived in Windham Hall around the same time in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In fact, a few have links that go back to their days as roommates or neighbors.

From Windham’s dorm rooms to the boardroom

The Windham Hall connection added a touch of nostalgia to their Innovation Quest and InQbator participation, letting them reminisce about life in the bustling North Campus complex once nicknamed “the Jungle.”

“It’s just a really neat coincidence,” says onetime Windham Hall resident Eric Knight ’82 (CLAS), the InQbator coordinator and one of this year’s Innovation Quest judges.

One thing that isn’t a coincidence, though, is their commitment to sharing their business acumen with today’s students.

Knight, for instance, followed his entrepreneurial curiosity to form Remarkable Technologies Inc. and launch several successful business ventures, including an aerospace company that provides round-trip space flights for any kind of payload.

And this year’s UConn Innovation Quest sponsor, Keith R. Fox ’80 (BUS), is a longtime entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded Brandsoft, an enterprise software and consulting company. He previously was also an executive at Apple and vice president of worldwide corporate marketing at Cisco Systems, and currently is CEO of the Keith and Pamela Fox Family Foundation.

Fox returned several times from his California home to Storrs over the past year to participate in UConn Innovation Quest events after bringing the competition to campus based on witnessing its success at California Polytechnic State University.

Fox’s visits included a red-eye flight that allowed him to arrive on campus on a recent sultry summer morning in time for the final InQbator session, where he and others gathered to hear the student entrepreneurs’ business pitches.

“An interesting thing we’ve learned along the way is what a nice and enjoyable way this is for alumni to give back – not just in money, but in time and expertise and mentoring,” Fox told the group of potential investors and alumni, which included UConn Innovation Quest Advisory Board member Larry Yakaitis ’81 (CLAS), president of Mantana Group LLC and another Windham Hall alum, like Fox, Dodge, and Knight.

Yakaitis didn’t need any convincing; he’s an active alum and came away from his latest UConn experience with great new memories.

“My participation as a mentor has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences I’ve had in quite some time,” he says. “More alumni should get engaged in mentoring UConn students in whatever domain expertise they possess – it’s a blast!”

Program ‘embodies everything UConn stands for,’ says alum

Some other alumni who volunteered their time and expertise included Tim Friar ’80 (BUS), ’83 MBA, former president and CEO of the Make-a-Wish Foundation; Kevin Bouley ’80 (BUS), president and CEO of the Tolland-based science and engineering research firm Nerac Inc.; and Frank Milone ’92 (BUS), a founding partner of FML, a regional CPA firm headquartered in Glastonbury.

Like many of their counterparts, Friar, Milone, and Bouley are involved with many volunteer activities on behalf of UConn, both in the community and on campus as guest speakers and mentors.

“Being invited to participate in Innovation Quest aligned nicely with the current relationship I have with the University,” Bouley says. “It gives me an opportunity to engage with students who have an interest in entrepreneurship, as well as high-tech new company development.”

Friar, another advisory board member, says Innovation Quest supports UConn’s emphasis on innovation and job creation, and is a boon for the student entrepreneurs, who get real-world experience in developing a business plan and pitching to real investors.

“It embodies everything UConn stands for in its experiential learning philosophy,” says Friar, who knows a thing or two about jobs and careers. A two-term board member of the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, he was also the firm’s Global Services president.

UConn officials praise the willingness of alumni to visit classes, mentor students, consider them for jobs, and participate in programs like Innovation Quest and its InQbator.

“Our alumni involvement in Innovation Quest has been, in my mind, one of the most influential and key components of the program’s success,” says James Lowe, assistant dean of the School of Business. “Students have access to real-world insights into the projects that they are working on, and are able to tap into the invaluable intellectual resources that our alumni are able to provide.”