CORVALLIS, Ore. - Using a bit of entrepreneurial spirit, Oregon State University has turned a defunct, historic residence hall into a modern home for a burgeoning new academic program that is drawing visitors from other colleges and universities around the nation.
In the process, OSU has created what program leaders say is the nation's largest, most distinctive residential college focusing on entrepreneurship.
Weatherford Hall reopened this fall after a $20 million renovation, transforming the 76-year-old building into a specially designed home for nearly 300 students in OSU's Austin Entrepreneurship Program. What makes Weatherford unique is its complete focus on entrepreneurship - from the students, to live-in faculty, to in-hall lectures by visiting industry leaders, to the special "incubator" rooms where students can design and develop their own businesses.
"We've clearly tapped into something that is energizing student entrepreneurs as well as senior executives who want to get involved in helping them get launched," said Jon Down, director of OSU's Austin Entrepreneurship Program. "I think a lot of the interest from executives stems from their own experiences and their recognition of how difficult it can be to successfully launch new ventures."
The Austin Entrepreneurship Program (AEP) is a joint venture between the university's College of Business, College of Engineering and University Housing & Dining Services. Its name comes from engineering alumnus Ken Austin and his wife, Joan, owners of A-Dec, a leading dental equipment company, who provided the lead gift for renovating Weatherford Hall.
For the past decade, Weatherford Hall has been vacant, the victim of aging plumbing and wiring and general dilapidation. It had become something of a poster child for a deferred maintenance issue on campus. It is always easier to raise money for new buildings than to repair old ones. But tearing down Weatherford, one of OSU's most stately buildings, wasn't really an option.
That's when the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.
"We thought, why not create a brand new building, inside the older shell, that complements the innovative vision and goals of an academic program," said Tom Scheuermann, director of OSU's University Housing & Dining Services. "Many of the features in Weatherford are designed especially for the entrepreneurial focus of the student residents and AEP faculty."
The incubator rooms are among the most intriguing features of Weatherford. They are designed to serve as workshops for developing new inventions, innovations or business ideas. They feature movable furnishings, lockable space for materials, and data port hookups.
The fifth floor has an entrepreneurship library, open 24 hours a day. On the ground floor is the apartment of Justin Craig, a faculty member in OSU's College of Business, who serves as faculty-member-in-residence for the program.
And there are two suites for visiting entrepreneurs, executives and scholars. Within weeks after announcing the program, more than two dozen successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists had signed up for the program. Many will visit Weatherford overnight or for a weekend, give lectures in the hall, meet with students, and provide entrepreneurship mentoring.
Thianna Clark-Williams, a freshman majoring in apparel design, said those features are why she chose to come to Oregon State University for the Austin Entrepreneurship Program.
"I wanted to get involved in the program because of the opportunities in helping me create a new business," she said. "I have several business ideas, with my main focusing on starting my own clothing line as a fashion designer. The program will help me with the steps I need to take, and give me the tools to do it with." Another entrepreneurship student, economics major Emily G. Allstot, says her goal of starting a company in an "increasingly wired, interconnected global market will require a variety of perspectives as an individual and a company.
"The great thing about Weatherford is that I am getting the opportunity to meet a smorgasbord of people with different majors and different ways of thinking," said Allstot, a sophomore who wants to launch a research analysis/policy consulting firm. "We are encouraged to collaborate to problem-solve and achieve our goals."
AEP students come from majors across OSU's broad spectrum. Business and engineering students lead the way, but Weatherford has numerous science, liberal arts, health and human sciences and other majors. That mix of students - from different backgrounds and majors, yet linked by entrepreneurship - is what makes Weatherford unique, said Ilene Kleinsorge, dean of OSU's College of Business.
"We started the entrepreneurship curriculum last year, but opening Weatherford is special," she said. "Put 285 students in an entrepreneurship residential college - all of whom have an interest in starting their own business - and I guarantee that you will see some innovative concepts come through."
Ron Adams, dean of OSU's College of Engineering, said the collaborative Austin Entrepreneurship Program and Weatherford Hall may soon give a boost to the Oregon economy.
"The real benefit will come a few years down the road, when students begin spinning off companies that create new jobs here in Oregon and beyond," Adams said. "Remember, Michael Dell started his company in a dorm room and look where he is today."
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Jon Down, 541-713-8045