From ivory tower to real business

February 1, 2021

“At some point you have to stop taking classes and simply go do it.” -- Rick Sontag speaking to University of Nevada, Reno students in the College of Business, 2012.

In a New York Times OpEd, David Brooks reflects on the mission of higher education: “technical and practical knowledge and skills for career preparation are important and necessary goals of higher education. But the best outcomes of a college experience go well beyond this…what collectively might be called “life and citizenship knowledge.”1

Nevadatude is a mindset reflecting that life and citizenship knowledge; it describes a silver and blue spirit built on the qualities of persistence, determination, work ethic and focus. It promotes values, tradition and ignites the energy required to prepare, compete and sustain. It embraces the action and resolve needed to be successful. In the end, it is the inspiration that drives an invincible determination in the pursuit of excellence.2

Nevadatude is the perfect accompaniment to the boot-strapping mentality often needed to launch and sustain a business venture. That mindset has been instrumental in helping Reno and Northern Nevada recover from the economic downturn of 2008 that hit Nevada especially hard. In the wake of that downturn, the College of Business (COB) at the University of Nevada, Reno launched an effort to revitalize its entrepreneurship program. Steps were taken to develop an entrepreneurship curriculum, recruit faculty and staff, fundraise in support of various program initiatives and work with local constituents to build strong community partnerships. Among other things, faculty involved with the program at the time worked to support student efforts in the Governor’s Cup Business Plan competition.

A business plan is a roadmap for how to structure, run and grow a business. Creating business plans is a popular way to teach aspiring entrepreneurs about the necessary elements of successful business from team development to market analysis, financing and eventual exit strategies. Effective business plans can be used to attract potential investment and build the foundation for successful ventures. However, as Woody Allen is credited with saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” We all know things have a way of turning out not quite as we hoped or expected.

Early on in the development of the entrepreneurship program in the College of Business, Development Director Kristen Kennedy was working her way through her rolodex when she hit upon Rick Sontag – a highly successful entrepreneur who had made his fortune in the aeronautics industry. Rick had begun his entrepreneurial journey at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) while a physics student at the University of Nevada, Reno. After listening to Ms. Kennedy’s pitch, Mr. Sontag and his wife, Susan, agreed to give the program $25K to help the COB reinvigorate its entrepreneurship program. Before his check arrived, Rick called Kristen back seeking clarification of the programs’ goals. That conversation led to a revised pledge of $100K. Before that check could clear, he called again – this time with a gift of $1M and a plan to create real businesses. A winner take-all ($50,000 annual award) competition was designed to be more than an academic exercise. The goal was to establish a program that went well beyond a business plan competition. The Sontag Business Competition was born; faculty, staff and community volunteers working with student teams with the goal to create real working businesses. Funding for the program would be provided through the endowment established by the Sontag’s gift to the college. In the first year of the program 76 teams signed up to pitch their ideas.

Since its inception in 2012, the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition has worked with hundreds of young entrepreneurs and teams to develop creative and innovative business ideas. More than that, the competition fosters an entrepreneurial mindset that enhances the entrepreneurial ecosystem within the University and broader northern Nevada community. The Ozmen Center for Entrepreneurship continues to build on efforts like the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition to engage students, support innovative ventures and foster an entrepreneurial mindset; moving ideas to action -- out of the ivory tower and into a productive economy.

Contributed by:
David T. Croasdell, PhD
Charles and Ruth Hopping Professor of Entrepreneurship & Associate Professor of Information Systems in the
College of Business at the University of Nevada, Reno
Director of the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition 2012-2016

1 David Brooks, The Practical University, The New York Times, April 5th 2013, Accessed 1/16/2021
2 Nevada Wolf Pack Attitude, Accessed 1/16/2021