Washington People: Clifford Holekamp

Giving students a front-row seat to the startup revolution

Clifford Holekamp, senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Olin Business School, is shown at Lab 1500 in downtown St. Louis. (Credit: Mary Butkus/WUSTL Photos)

Clifford Holekamp is senior lecturer in entrepreneurship and director of the entrepreneurship platform at Olin Business School. He manages an angel investment portfolio, serves as a board member for several ventures, and is a judge and adviser for the Olin Cup business plan competition and for the Arch Grants international business plan competition.

We sat down with Holekamp to discuss entrepreneurship at Washington University and St. Louis’ rise as a startup hub.

First question: Can entrepreneurship be taught?

You bet! It strikes me as a little egotistical when entrepreneurs claim that they have a natural born gift for entrepreneurship that can’t be taught to others.

I think the debate is further confused when we don’t differentiate between the studies of ideation/innovation and of venture management. We are seeing innovation being effectively taught in the curriculums of just about every school in the university.

Olin, of course, has been teaching applicable principles of business management and leadership for generations. Entrepreneurship as a career path may not be for everyone, but my students graduate armed with the management knowledge needed to successfully lead entrepreneurial firms.

Tell us a little about your background. You started a business before coming to Olin, correct?

Actually, I first came to Washington University as an MBA student in 1999. While studying at Olin, I developed a concept for a chain of health-care centers that combine a podiatrist’s clinic with a foot-care products store. Customers preferred the accessible retail format and the emphasis on customer service. The business grew very quickly, and I was bought out by an investment syndicate in 2007.

In addition to teaching entrepreneurship on the Danforth Campus, you’re credited with being a key leader in St. Louis’ burgeoning startup scene. Tell us about your work outside the classroom.

I am part of the founding group of general partners at Cultivation Capital. We started with an early-stage tech fund in 2012, and in the last year and a half, we added an early-stage life sciences fund, a small growth fund, and partnered with the St. Louis Regional Chamber to launch an accelerator called SixThirty.

It is very exciting to be part of this dream team of entrepreneurs, including WUSTL alums Jim McKelvey and Rick Holton, who are now coordinating our energies to attracting and growing the next generation of great companies. Additionally, I am actively engaged as a board member of several local ventures, including LockerDome, TrakBill and Rothman Furniture.

(From left to right) Holekamp chats with Andrew Brimer, a recent alumnus of the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and Kyle Tabor, a current MBA candiate. Holekamp mentored both during Olin’s Hatchery business plan course. Brimer is co-founder of Sparo Labs, which is developing a low-cost sprirometer to measure lung function. The three were at Lab 1500 to film an upcoming segment on entrepreneurship for Techli.com. (Credit: Mary Butkus/WUSTL Photos)

St. Louis is becoming increasingly recognized for its vital and connected startup scene. What is it about St. Louis that makes such growth possible?

It’s all about the community. A wonderfully energized community has developed around the startup scene, and the momentum attracts momentum.

One of my personal charges is to keep Wash. U engaged in this scene. I have had the opportunity to help get hundreds of students involved in entrepreneurship community events; have had my students doing academic project work with dozens of startups; and have made countless introductions that have led to jobs and internships for our students.

Our students have a front-row seat to the startup revolution in St. Louis, but, even better, they can actually play in the game if they want to.

You’re on the board at Arch Grants. What is that organization, and how is it contributing to the community?

I believe Arch Grants is the keystone organization in the St. Louis startup community.

We are a nonprofit, international startup business competition. We receive applications from startup ventures from all over the world, which are competing for one of 20 $50,000 grants that we give away annually. We are looking for innovative and dynamic growth companies who we believe will contribute to the startup culture and economy of St. Louis.

The grant is a free prize, with the only consideration being that the company move its headquarters to downtown St. Louis. Several Wash. U students have been awardees, and I see Arch Grants as a significant opportunity for seed-stage funding for our student entrepreneurs.

The teaching of entrepreneurship at the university has increased quite a bit in the last five years, and not just at Olin Business School. What are some things that you notice about the students who take your courses?

My students are incredibly focused and engaged. They want to be here and want to get every bit of value they can out of their educational opportunities. I wouldn’t be teaching if I didn’t think that the students cared as much as I do.

In the last five years, the student motivation hasn’t changed, but the degree of action has. When I first started, most students were looking at business ideas from a theoretical perspective. Now, more of these students are actually starting companies, and most don’t even wait for graduation.

How would you like to see entrepreneurship education at WUSTL develop in the future?

My interest is in continuing to break down academic barriers to make the study and pursuit of entrepreneurship more collaborative and more multidisciplinary. I’ve helped build strong partnerships with the Brown School in social entrepreneurship, with the engineering school in innovation, and with the law school in early-stage company strategy and consulting.

Nationally, the teaching of entrepreneurship is getting more and more experiential. Likewise at Olin, I’ve launched three new experiential courses and have consulted with other faculty to add experiential components to their existing courses. Amidst the growth, however, it is important not to lose the role of teaching and instruction in the use of experiential learning techniques.

It is exciting to spin companies out of our courses — I am very proud of the over 70 companies that have launched out of my classes in the past five years. But I am even more proud of the education I provided those students that will help them become more successful.