Twenty years ago, the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute opened at the University of Utah with a budget of $50,000 and a question: what would happen if students were given a space to create and collaborate across disciplines, degrees and interests?
The answer, it turns out, is a lot.
In the past 20 years, Lassonde has set the pace for entrepreneurship programs across the country, reaching 100,000 students across 60 different majors. The institute has handed out $6 million in scholarships, $4 million in grants, and launched 3,000 student companies. The institute even launched a new degree at the David Eccles School of Business – the Masters of Business Creation.
“There is nothing else like it in the country. It’s very innovative,” said Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.
At an anniversary luncheon earlier this week, key donors and partners joined founder Pierre Lassonde in celebrating four lessons learned from Lassonde’s unique success.
- Start small and grow from there. When Lassonde first approached Jack Brittain, then dean of the Eccles School, with the idea of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, it seemed overwhelming. So, they adopted the mantra: start small and grow from there. “Give it a try and learn really fast. That’s what we did,” Brittain said. “We’ve had some failures but we’ve forgotten them.”
- Stay humble. A major key to the success of the Lassonde Entrepreneurship Institute was making it a student-run program, but it wasn’t easy at first to give up that kind of control. “Letting other people thrive is the secret to our success,” D’Ambrosio said. “That is such a core principle is what we do is empowering students and trusting students and what they are capable of.”
- Bring the right people to the table. “People who get together can do remarkable things together,” said University of Utah president Taylor Randall, and the Lassonde Entrepreneurship Institute is proof of that. A cross-disciplinary approach broadens everyone’s way of thinking, and lets everyone capitalize on their own strengths.
- Don’t be afraid to change course. “Entrepreneurship is about passion and perseverance, of course, but it is also about pivot,” said Glen Prestwich, an early faculty advisor at the Lassonde Entrepreneurship Institute. For example, it took several tries to figure out the best way to engage faculty members in the new institute, he said, but once they found the right solution, “it created a synergistic experience with unparalleled educational benefits for faculty and students.”
- Remember that every kind of help matters. And that the help you give will come back to you in the end. When Pierre Lassonde and his late wife, Claudette, arrived at the University of Utah they spoke very little English and had very little money, Lassonde recalled. An administrative assistant named Joyce helped them find housing, got them jobs as TAs and did a lot of other things to help them find their feet. As the Lassonde businesses started to succeed, Pierre and Claudette did what they could to return the favor and take care of Joyce. When she passed away recently, she donated her entire estate to the Lassonde Entrepreneurship Institute. “Whether it’s philanthropy or business, it’s all about people,” Lassonde said. “Good people make good things happen.”
With these lessons in hand, the Lassonde Entrepreneurship Institute is looking forward to another 20 years of innovation and growth. At the luncheon D’Ambrosio announced two new initiatives being launched by the institute: an online Masters of Business Creation degree and Lassonde for Life, a free program that any alum of the university can use to help them start a new business.
His parting words to the applause of a standing ovation?
“We are going to create the most unique ecosystem of any university in the country.”