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A Gathering of Entrepreneurs at Washington and Lee

For the more than 200 Washington and Lee University students who attended the University’s second annual Entrepreneurship Summit last weekend, the war stories of alumni who have been in the trenches may have included some surprises.

Matt Langan, a 2010 graduate and co-founder of DigiDoctor, a patient-relationship management and marketing automation software for health-care professionals, was a case in point

Addressing a session titled “Bootstrapping,” Langan said that his ideas for new businesses invariably wound up taking a different direction than he had originally expected.

“With every single venture I started,” Langan said, “I ended up with an idea that was very different from the idea I first thought was going to be a home run.”

An entrepreneur is “bootstrapping” when he or she attempts to found and build a company from personal finances or from the operating revenues of the new company.

“Bootstrapping,” said Langan, “is perfect for allowing you to pivot quickly and iterate your idea until you’re able to validate it and get traction. You also have creative control and don’t have to answer to investors. And when you’ve validated your idea, you have so much more power at the negotiating table when you do need to bring in cash in order to grow your business.”

Langan, a business administration major, was one of 64 alumni who participated in the event, sponsored by the J. Lawrence Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship. According to Jeff Shay, the Johnson Professor of Entrepreneurship at W&L, the returning alumni represented 23 different majors, while the 202 student participants were spread out across 29 different majors. That breadth of interest across disciplines is what Shay believes sets W&L’s young entrepreneurship program apart.

• See a Storify from the Entrepreneurship Summit

A history major at W&L, Tom Pearce Jr., of the Class of 1985, founded Mortgage Asset Exchange, an electronic mortgage exchange that facilitates the trading of residential mortgage loans between mortgage originators and buyers of whole loans.

Pearce advised the audience that one path to entrepreneurship is to learn on someone else’s dime by getting a job in the industry and looking for opportunities where a need could be met, noting that this is the path that he took.

Andrew Ruppar, a 1998 graduate in public policy, is principal and chief operating officer of Inventory Source Technologies, an e-commerce company that handles supply-chain logistics and business-to-business application development. Describing the early struggles on his journey to successful entrepreneurship, he offered advice on eking out resources and spending dollars on things that lead to revenue in the early years.

Ruppar pointed out that when he started his entrepreneurial ventures, he had no idea whether it would be a good option for him. If he had attended an entrepreneurial summit such as the one now being offered at his alma mater, “if nothing else, it would have motivated me a little quicker.” He added, “I didn’t know anyone who was necessarily at the same stage of starting a business. You hear from everyone else that it’s all risk, and your parents are questioning if it’s really the best way to go — what about that really nice job that has health insurance and a 401K? So I think it’s encouraging for students to hear that it’s a viable option.”

Todd Smith-Schoenwalder, a W&L senior majoring in political philosophy, was among those who found the perspectives valuable. “I’ve recently been studying social media and why people are so attracted to it, specifically my generation, and I’ve come up with the idea for a social media application for academia,” Smith-Schoenwalder said. “I’m trying to work out how to make that idea manifest, and so I think this weekend is pretty valuable for me.”

W&L alumni attending the summit also benefited from networking with current students and fellow alumni. “It’s an opportunity to meet with people who have been through the same things you’ve been through, had the same growing pains and learned from them,” said Ruppar. “And there may be chances for people to work together on some new ventures. So I think it’s good for the folks who have been doing this for a while to rejuvenate, be with people who are at those early stages, then get back out there and start the next one.”

In addition to educational sessions and networking events, mentoring sessions enabled both alumni and student entrepreneurs to receive valuable feedback from experienced alumni entrepreneurs. Students were also able to pitch their new business ideas at the Student Pitch Competition as well interview with alumni for internships and permanent jobs.

First place in the Student Pitch Competition went to Brennon Williams, a first-year student from Hillsborough, Calif. His winning pitch was for a product called “Calicloth,” a material that treats acne. AnnMarie Wakely, a junior from Savannah, Ga., was second with her pitch for “JourneySafe,” which overlays crime data on top of mobile maps to offer safe travel, and Matthew Kordonowy, a sophomore from Fort Myers, Fla., took third with his clothing company called “Vern Clothing.”

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