Charlotte skyline with sun

{{ story.headline }}

{{ story.subheading }}

{{ story.timestamp }}

Local universities continue to be one of our startup community's greatest assets—not only do they educate and produce talent that feeds into the startup community but they train students to become entrepreneurs and they employ professors and researchers who develop and commercialize groundbreaking innovation. 
 
There's a team of people on every campus that help to connect faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members with various programs and opportunities, all to promote innovation and economic development in the state of North Carolina. 

In the fourth of a series of Q&As with university leaders across the state, meet some of the folks making it happen at UNC-Charlotte, Davidson College, Johnson C. Smith University and Johnson & Wales University. 

Paul Wetenhall of Ventureprise at UNCC
Credit: Melissa Key

Paul Wetenhall 

President and Executive Director of Ventureprise, Inc.
UNC-Charlotte

Briefly describe your job/role with the university. 

I lead Ventureprise, a non-profit venture development organization that is financially supported by UNC-Charlotte. We operate an innovation center with 20+ early stage commercial ventures and a student business incubator in the fantastic new PORTAL building. Ventureprise also works with community partners to strengthen the Charlotte metro innovation and entrepreneurship capacity. 

How does your background contribute to your role in entrepreneurship programming?

My first business was newspaper delivery, but I started thinking like an entrepreneur as a UNC-Chapel Hill MBA student taking the one entrepreneurship course offered in those days (by memorable professor Dick Levin). 

After beginning my career at Xerox, an entrepreneurial success of the last century, I co-founded a VC-backed software company that developed linguistic products such as spellcheckers using PARC technology. In the last 20 years, I have been a coach and advisor to 200+ startups in Rochester and Charlotte, many of which have their roots in university research. 

Along the way I have taught tech entrepreneurship courses for engineering, science and business grad students. In Rochester, my organization took on the economic development challenge of transitioning a big company town (Kodak, Xerox) to an entrepreneur-led economy—experience that is relevant now as we work to diversify Charlotte’s booming economy. 

What's an extra proud moment from your time in your role?

The National Science Foundation recognized Ventureprise tech commercialization capabilities by awarding an I-Corps site to UNC Charlotte to support customer discovery. The award brought UNC Charlotte into the NSF National Innovation Network joining 50 other universities. We are working to encourage other universities in the Carolinas to seek I-Corps grants. 

Who's the most impressive entrepreneur you’ve come into contact with through your work, and why?

I’ve seen multi-million dollar exits and a few bankruptcies among the many companies and students I have known. Without naming just one, I’m most impressed by founders who overcome near-failure through a combination of grit, personal financial sacrifice and incredible customer insights. 

What's a fun fact about yourself?

I was the “voice of Orangeburg High School” broadcasting, a weekly radio program on a South Carolina AM station in the days when the show’s name, High Time, didn’t have a double meaning…at least not to teenage me!

Hannah Levinson of Davidson College

Hannah Levinson 

Director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship 
Davidson College 
 

Briefly describe your job/role with the university. 

I lead Davidson's vision, programming and strategy for our Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, a college-wide collaborative effort that involves all members of our community in reimagining the liberal arts and their role in the 21st century. We connect students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners with opportunities to think critically, engage creatively with technology, work iteratively, take smart risks, and prototype tangible solutions to real-world issues. Programs comprise experiential learning opportunities like startup weekends, design challenges, pitch competitions, makerspace tools and technology, fellow- and internships, and an entrepreneur-in-residence program. 
 

How does your background contribute to your role in entrepreneurship programming?

My background before Davidson can be defined by two through-lines: 1) pursuing ethicality, and 2) carving out a vocational space uniquely my own—in other words, working entrepreneurially. The former, which has been fueled by my liberal arts education in ethics and philosophy, aligned perfectly with Davidson's mission of preparing leaders who serve with discipline, creativity, and by cultivating humane instincts. Most recently, I worked in the emerging field of venture philanthropy and ran a social impact consultancy. 
 

What's an extra proud moment from your time in your role?

During my first year at Davidson, I watched two seniors grow a great business from scratch: They pitched an idea that fall at a Startup Weekend, worked together on an independent study to beta test and launch the application in the spring, won seed money through the college's venture fund and, just recently, sold their product package (licensed code and on-demand developer support for higher ed institutions) to a first major client. They're still running the company, INTRSECT, with plans to scale while at the same time pursuing graduate studies and a Venture for America fellowship, respectively. 
 
To me, this story and their success embody both Davidson's holistic mission and that of our entrepreneurship initiative—taking up the singular benefits of a liberal arts education to create much-needed solutions in a rapidly changing world. 
 

Who is the impressive entrepreneur you’ve come into contact with through your work, and why?

This one's impossible to answer. I've met hundreds of extraordinary exemplars during my time at the college, and meet more every day. They're impassioned individuals working collectively and collaboratively toward meaningful innovation. From my point of view, the standout characteristics of an entrepreneur are work ethic, integrity and critical thinking: a commitment and willingness to continually ask the right questions, to revisit or reframe the problem you're working to solve, and to navigate ambiguity while advancing the greater good. 
 

What's a fun fact about yourself?

I'm a recovering documentary film producer and deejay. The latter lives on in my social media handle (@djhannimal) and the occasional guest show on a local community radio station.

Keisha Talbot Johnson of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte

Keisha Talbot Johnson 

Research Communications & Special Projects Manager at Smith Institute for Applied Research;  co-founder at Innovo Laboratory (innovation incubator)
Johnson C. Smith University 

Briefly describe your job/role with the university. 

I help promote the work and research of Johnson C. Smith University's faculty and students as well as spearhead entrepreneurial leadership initiatives at the university. 
 

How does your background contribute to your role in entrepreneurship programming?

I grew up in Florida with entrepreneurial parents. I watched my father run a dry cleaners and both parents dabbled in real estate. Later, while earning my MBA, I was inspired by fellow classmates who were not necessarily planning on joining big companies, but planned to start their own ventures. 

I also happened to arrive in Charlotte when banking was going through its own transition and saw lots of innovative startups as a result. During that time, Ron Stodghill, Innovo Laboratory's co-founder joined the university. A business writer by trade, his experience at Time, Inc. and Fortune Small Business allowed him to see that the best model for leadership was inside the mind of the entrepreneur. On his third day of working at the university he described his grand ideas for preparing students to think entrepreneurially. I was sold on that vision. 
 

What's an extra proud moment from your time in your role?

Students may want to become entrepreneurs, but can also be particularly shy or struggle to find an application to what they know in the entrepreneurial space. They may see other college-aged entrepreneurs who have made it, but don't know where to start. After conversations with many students about their major, classes they've taken and helping them to see that there is are entrepreneurial applications to the theory they learn in class, we were able to launch Innovo's inaugural student pitch competition and place several Innovo scholars in top-notch internships from Queen City Forward's Impact U, to the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. 
 

Who is the impressive entrepreneur you’ve come into contact with through your work, and why?

Harvey Gantt. His name is well known in Charlotte. He's a history-maker, and an entrepreneur who has been able to navigate various challenges in the city. While working on a couple of projects, I was given the task of reaching out to him. I was convinced that I would not get a call-back from him because of his importance to the city. I was surprised that he, himself actually answered the phone and was more than happy to schedule time to participate. 
 

What's a fun fact about yourself?

From Soca to Gospel to R&B and Bachata, I love music!

Fred Tiess of Johnson & Wales in Charlotte

Fred Tiess 

Associate Professor, College of Culinary Arts, School of Business—Food & Beverage Entrepreneurship 
Johnson & Wales University

Briefly describe your job/role with the university. 

I'm a classically-trained award-winning chef as well as a third-generation entrepreneur. I teach Classical Cuisine in the College of Culinary Arts as well as Entrepreneurship in the School of Business at Johnson & Wales University Charlotte. 
 

How does your background contribute to your role in entrepreneurship programming?

I own Le Guild Culinaire, a publication venture, residential property rentals in Virginia and F&B Resources, an entrepreneurial consulting service in Matthews, NC. I'm a board member for Mercy Chefs, a 501(c)3, a disaster relief social entrepreneurship non-profit that provides free hot meals to victims and first responders. I hold a master’s degree in entrepreneurship from Western Carolina University, as well as business, management and culinary degrees from Johnson & Wales, the Culinary Institute of America and the State University of New York at Dutchess Community College. 
 

What's an extra proud moment from your time in your role?

One of the great outcomes of teaching are great stories of success about our students. My most recent proud moment is when a team of my students won second place in the Queen City Forward Innovation Challenge and were later selected to take part in the accelerator program at QCF this summer. 
 

Who is the impressive entrepreneur you’ve come into contact with through your work, and why?

I am very fortunate to have the privilege of partnering with Louis Foreman of Enventys to teach our students at JWU. Louis provides real life examples of successful endeavors he has lead. Over the past 20 years, this includes over 600 patents, nine ventures and an Emmy Award Winning show on PBS entitled Everyday Edisons. 
 

What's a fun fact about yourself?

Mercy Chefs – Since our founding 10 years ago after Hurricane Katrina, Mercy Chefs has served over 1.1 million meals, 100,000 of which have been over the past 90 days with the flooding in West Virginia and Baton Rouge.