By Maya Bell
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (August 26, 2015)—About one a day. That’s how many ideas walk into The Launch Pad at Toppel every year. Not by themselves, of course, but in the laptops, notebooks, sketchpads, hearts, and brains of University of Miami students and alumni yearning to start a new venture.
Over the past seven years, nearly 300 of those ideas have evolved into start-up companies and about 900 jobs, which by many measures would make the first-of-its kind resource center for budding entrepreneurs an unqualified success. But as The Launch Pad celebrated its seventh anniversary with an open house on Wednesday, co-founder William Scott Green, senior vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, and director Will Silverman said they measure success not by what The Launch Pad’s participants—or their businesses—make, but by what they learn.
And that’s incalculable.
“What we’re really doing is creating empowered decision-makers,’’ said Silverman, a former biomedical researcher who joined The Launch Pad as a Venture Coach at its inception in fall 2008 and became its director four years later. “We don’t tell people what to do. When they come in and say, ‘I want to sell cookies,’ we help them figure out what they mean by asking the right questions. Do they want to sell at farmer’s markets, or do they want to be the next Mrs. Fields?”’
And even though roughly 3,500 students and alumni have come to The Launch Pad hoping to start or strengthen their ventures, Green added, it is not a small business development corporation. “It is,” he said, “a fundamental exercise in experiential learning. The Launch Pad’s programs are co-curricular and voluntary, and each venture is unique. Students in The Launch Pad learn entrepreneurship individually, by trying it on, so to speak, to see if it fits them. That kind of learning tends to be durable, to stick with you.”
Lucy Calamari, who earned her business degree in 2013, knew she had to give it a try in 2011, when she heard about The Launch Pad, the first college center to promote entrepreneurship as a viable career option, at orientation.
“My first stop was here,” Calamari recalled, sitting inside The Launch Pad’s Whitten University Center office (it’s not really at the Toppel Career Center), while students lined up on the patio outside to learn about the guidance, encouragement, and networking opportunities Silverman and The Launch Pad staff and volunteers offer.
“I dropped in and said, ‘Hello, I’m Lucy, and you are going to see me a lot,’’ Calamari said. “I knew I wanted to make chocolates and I knew how to make my chocolates, but that’s all I knew. What my business was going to look like and how I was going to develop it, I had no clue.”
Three years later, Calamari’s Lucky Lucy Chocolates, with their distinctly South Florida flavors—including mango, key lime, mojito and café mocha—won the $10,000 grand prize in the alumni category of the University of Miami’s 2014 Business Plan Competition, hosted by the School of Business Administration.
That “seed money,” Calamari said, enabled her to learn another lesson and expand her line. “When you have more money to spend on raw materials, you spend less for it,” she said. “So I am doing well, making a living, and new products.”
As Green enjoyed the sights and sounds of new students eager to learn more about The Launch Pad at the open house celebration, he noted there is no single recipe for entrepreneurial success, no set of skills, that once mastered, bestows a certificate in entrepreneurship. But on The Launch Pad’s seventh anniversary, he reflected on one key reason for its success:
“The Launch Pad is effective because all the businesses are authentic,” he said. “It’s not a theoretical exercise about a potential venture with a potential business plan. It’s for real.”
For more information about The Launch Pad, call 305-284-2789, visit The Launch Pad online, or drop by on the first floor of the Whitten University Center, room 1319.