FGCU School of Entrepreneurship opens new facilities for its innovation incubator
By Craig Handel
Photos by Brad Young
Having started college at age 15 and worked on her master’s in entrepreneurship at Florida Gulf Coast University while opening a business at age 20, Myra Jaimes has encountered many educational opportunities.
As she contemplated an offer to attend a summer program at Stanford University, a fellow FGCU student who created his own business said something that resonated.
“He said, ‘Why go to Stanford?’” Jaimes recalled. “This is the Silicon Valley of Florida.”
While some may see that as an exaggeration, the FGCU Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship has made incredible gains in its fourth year.
It’s the No. 1 ranked entrepreneurship program among public universities in Florida and comes in 29th of more than 300 schools nationwide, according to the Princeton Review’s 2021 Entrepreneurship Rankings. It also was selected as a Bronze Award Winner for an innovative model of entrepreneurship education.
In July, FGCU’s School of Entrepreneurship moved from their building off Alico Road into a three-floor facility on campus in newly constructed Lucas Hall.
“We’re growing so rapidly, there was no room for us,” said Sandra Kauanui, PhD, founding director of the entrepreneurship program.
It’s a local start-up that’s becoming nationally known. Recently, NASA officials reached out to forge an official relationship with the university’s entrepreneurship program.
FGCU now has almost 3,000 students in various majors enrolled in entrepreneurship courses with 800 of those majoring in entrepreneurship last fall.
“We have faculty fellows spreading across the campus in arts, sciences and health,” Kauanui added. “We’re now one of the five pillars of the university.
“Students are understanding they can be entrepreneurs in a company as well as their own business; and employers love our students because they think outside the box.”
Thanks to philanthropists David Lucas, Frank Daveler and other donors, the $8 million facility is paid for without state funding.
Jakub Adamowicz, a 2019 graduate starting in the master’s program this fall, noted, “It’s not funded with $100 million to start. It started small and grew. It’s a start-up within itself.”
Along with the School of Entrepreneurship, Lucas Hall is home to some members of the Small Business Development Center and FGCU’s Regional Economic Research Institute. The 27,000-square-foot facility also will be home to the Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program, the FGCU Runway Program Business Incubator, Freshman Entrepreneurship Living-Learning Community and the Institute for Entrepreneurship. The institute runs several high school and middle school programs in partnership with organizations in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties.
“Yes, it’s on the fast track, but we’re entrepreneurs,” Kauanui said. “That’s what entrepreneurs do.”
Collaborative spaces foster creativity
The three floors are painted in different color schemes and each has a unique vibe. First floor is blue, second is green and third is yellow.
The first floor houses the FineMark Incubator with 2,000 square feet of shared work spaces, conference rooms, video production equipment, product development software and direct access to startup coaching.
Clear glass cubicles and administrative and faculty offices encourage interaction between students and faculty.
“The kids know exactly where we are and how they can find us,” Kauanui said. “And when I walk out of my office, I get to see the kids.”
“And there are whiteboards everywhere,” Jaimes said. “We’re constantly starting and creating new things.”
The Rist Family Foundation Maker Space is on the second floor, where creativity is enabled with tools like 3D printers, a laser cutter and virtual reality development kits.
The third floor includes the media lab, which features lighting and sound control, backdrops, props and cinema-quality audio-visual equipment.
Cole Crider, PhD, assistant professor of entrepreneurship, was a visiting professor at Western Kentucky University before coming to FGCU. For Crider, the big draw was the Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship being its own entity rather than operating within the College of Business.
“What’s really cool about that aspect is you can design the program,” Crider said. “Students develop in different ways, and you can continue to change as technology changes and best practices and theories change. There’s a lot of flexibility. You’re autonomous, and it allows you to partner with other major businesses and partner with the community.”
Kauanui used her academic and career experiences as guides as she helped develop FGCU’s entrepreneurship program.
In her first foray into college life as a student, Kauanui felt she didn’t fit into the norm at a university. So she developed a multi-faceted company that provided financial, tax and accounting services to entrepreneurial firms. She later returned to school and earned master’s and doctoral degrees, sold her company and turned to academia.
Flexibility has been a core component of FGCU’s entrepreneurship program, allowing students to be self-directed with electives so they can dive deeper into technology and product-design development.
“We made it entrepreneurial based on their needs and wants,” Kauanui said. “That’s what I like about the Runway program. It gives kids a place to develop their business and ideas, no matter what their major is.”
That flexibility has drawn students to the program like risk takers to a start-up.
Life experiences spark business ideas
Adamowicz was interested in civil and environmental engineering, but after learning about the program, his minor, then major changed to entrepreneurship. He started a business called Room Dig, a marketplace for college students to find housing and roommates. It’s based on his own experience.
“I came from New Jersey, and I didn’t know anybody…and if you’re stuck with a bad roommate, it can destroy your college career,” he said.
A winner of the Florida’s Governor’s Cup, Adamowicz has a new project – an online real estate business idea he wants to pitch to venture capitalists.
Jaimes launched an endeavor called Mexituras which connects artisans in Mexico to the United States. When she returned to her family’s homeland, she was struck that people who couldn’t afford shoes made their own using leather from animals slaughtered for food.
“They also took old tires and weaved them into shoes,” she said.
The style of the shoes has intrigued Americans, so Jaimes saw a potential market.
“Now I’m writing contracts for the artisans in Spanish,” she said.
There are many other stories of innovation and success.
John Ciocca won a 2021 Gold Edison Award for his product, youBelong Voice. Working with brother Christian, they devised an app, which provides alternative augmentative communication to those with speech-impeded disabilities.
Jonathan Appolon, who goes by the stage name Apollo Fresh, became a huge hit on TikTok with his son. In December 2019, he had about 3,000 followers. Following the release of “JoJo Pose,” that number shot up by 70,000, and videos featuring the song exceeded 1.5 billion views by the end of February 2020.
Alexandria Quillen made a natural sunscreen in her kitchen that won’t harm coral reefs. Called SunnyQ, the product has been approved by the FDA. A private manufacturer is helping her with production.
Kauanui follows the students’ successes so closely that she calculated in July that FGCU entrepreneurs had made $56 million in gross revenues.
“Our (regional) economic office asked, ‘How do we keep kids in Southwest Florida?’ This is how we keep them,” she said. “They stay here, get help from our professors, from our alumni, from our community.Then these students become interns, mentors. Many work for us.
“They have become successful. It is a joy and pleasure, and I watch it all the time.”
FGCU School of Entrepreneurship by the numbers
$29.8 million: Total sales by FGCU entrepreneurship students since August 2016*
$25 million: Generated by 80 businesses through FGCU’s tuition-free military veteran entrepreneurship training program*
27,000: Square feet of FGCU’s new Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship
3,000: Students enrolled in FGCU entrepreneurship courses
400: Businesses started by FGCU students and alumni since August 2016*
29:National ranking by Princeton Review for undergraduate entrepreneurship programs in 2021**
Meet the entrepreneurs behind FGCU’s top-ranked program
A few months before his death at age 102 last November, Frank Daveler reached out to Dr. Sandra Kauanui to offer a substantial gift to her growing entrepreneurship program at Florida Gulf Coast University.
The two first met in 2014. The inventor and businessman had watched Kauanui develop FGCU’s School of Entrepreneurship from scratch, and the Naples resident had been impressed enough to make the first donation to the program.
“He watched it grow and saw what impact it was making,” Kauanui said. “Once we built a relationship, he was always helping and giving more and more.”
When the two met again in the summer of 2020, Daveler proceeded to make another donation – this time for $4 million. Hence, the school’s program for aspiring inventors and business leaders is now called the FGCU Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship.
“He said, ‘This is something I wanted to do,’” Kauanui recalled. “He surprised me.”
It’s fitting that the building for budding entrepreneurs is named after two individuals who blazed their own trails in business.
Daveler launched and sold more than a dozen companies in aerospace, engineering and manufacturing. Frank and Ellen Daveler founded an engineering services firm, Associated Industrial Engineers, in Pennsylvania. After selling that company, they founded, led and invested in several other engineering, manufacturing and technology companies.
Ellen and Frank were married for 73 years before she passed in 2017.
“Frank developed the chip for the autopilot that led to the development of space travel,” Kauanui said. “He said if he hadn’t gotten help when he was an alumnus, he would not be able to do the things he did. That’s why he was so much in favor of ‘helping up,’ and it’s why he always included alums in his donations.”
The FGCU Alumni Runway Program offers business instruction, mentorship and general support to alumni who want to create a startup business or organization. At the end of the program, participants can pitch to an investment committee and be eligible for grant funding.
Besides FGCU, the Davelers donated to a number of entrepreneurial causes, including the Frank and Ellen Daveler Entrepreneurship Program at the University of South Florida Center for Entrepreneurship. They also sponsored a competition where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas similar to “Shark Tank.”
Kauanui: from teenage entrepreneur to academia
Kauanui received her introduction to entrepreneurship early. At age 12, she did the payroll for 500 employees in her mother and father’s business.
“That’s what you do when your family is entrepreneurs,” she said.
After her first year of college, she dropped out to start her own company in Virginia Beach. While it evolved into a multi-faceted business that provided financial, tax and accounting services to entrepreneurial firms, she quietly went back and earned her undergraduate degree.
While raising four children and doing a radio and television show, she earned her MBA at William & Mary. After 20 years, Kauanui sold her business and earned her PhD at The George Washington University.
She came to FGCU in 2007 from California Polytechnic State University, where she was a tenured associate professor and was honored as professor emeritus.
Kauanui has more than 30 years professional experience in the field as an entrepreneur, educator, researcher and consultant. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion. She has also served as president, officer and board member for the International Council for Small Business, a 50-year-old organization whose mission is to serve small and medium enterprises worldwide.
Cole Crider, assistant professor of entrepreneurship, added, “Dr. K is great at raising money, developing resources and being a huge advocate.”
She also is a servant leader and mentor to her students, preferring to call them “kids,” like they’re her kids.
Instead of rigid curriculum and exams, these “kids” are encouraged to pursue business ideas based on their passions, seeing a need or a problem they can solve. Kauanui has been with students like Jakub Adamowicz past midnight as they refine their ideas.
“She will go to the world’s end for us,” he said.
Kauanui has cried with students like Myra Jaimes, who agonized over her educational path.
“She has an incredible record. She’s been with presidents and has letters from Congress. She’s owned her own company and started over to become a professor. She wasn’t afraid of failing,” said Jaimes. “I’ve been blessed to be mentored by her.”
Of the entrepreneurship program Kauanui has built, Jaimes said, “We did start from nothing. She really believed this would happen.”