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Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship Named at Washington and Lee

Washington and Lee University announces that its Entrepreneurship Program has been named the J. Lawrence Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship, thanks to a $2.5 million gift from Leigh and Larry Connolly, of Atlanta.

“I’m excited to be part of this program,” said Larry Connolly, a member of the University’s Class of 1979. “It gives an opportunity to have a real impact in a positive way on students, both short term and long term.”

Connolly is the former CEO of Connolly Inc., a recovery audit accounting and consulting firm. He serves on the University’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Board and on the Alumni Advisory Committee of W&L’s Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability.

The Entrepreneurship Program at Washington and Lee got underway in 2009. Part of the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics, it is headed by Jeffrey P. Shay, the Johnson Professor of Entrepreneurship and Leadership. The program comprises coursework, the student-run Venture Club, the alumni-judged Business Plan Competition, and the annual Entrepreneurship Summit, all supported by the Entrepreneurship Advisory Board.

“Larry Connolly’s magnificent gift for the Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship is transformational,” said Larry Peppers, Crawford Family Dean of the Williams School. “Building upon the great work of Johnson Professor Jeff Shay, and given the immediate student and alumni interest in entrepreneurship which has already developed, the Connolly gift will allow Professor Shay and his colleagues to be even more aggressive in setting up initiatives to support students, and in bringing alumni and students together in events such as the forthcoming Entrepreneurship Summit, in October.”

Upon graduation from W&L in 1979, Connolly joined the company of the same name, which his father had founded that same year. “We are performance based,” said Connolly, who proceeded to earn enough in a year and a half to fund his subsequent studies for an M.B.A., which he obtained in 1982 from Tulane University. He went on to a career at Coopers & Lybrand before returning to the family fold in 1986. “I’d seen the benefits of working for yourself,” he said. “Nothing against corporate America, but I found it much more enjoyable to work in an entrepreneurial environment.”

With his sister, Libby Connolly Alexander, as the COO, they grew the company from 30 employees to more than 1,250. It has made frequent appearances on Inc. 5000’s list of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies.

In 2012, he and Alexander sold the company to Advent International, and he stepped down as CEO. With that decision, and with his children, Catherine and Jay, now in their early 20s, he is positioned “to spend more time outside the business,” as he put it.

He’s already served as a judge of the W&L Business Plan Competition. “I really liked what I saw—the caliber of students, the passion for these businesses,” Connolly said. “Obviously, not all of them are going to become entrepreneurs, but I bet some of them will. I think the quality of their work, the building blocks they are assembling, are going to help them regardless of where they end up.” He also predicted that the fundamental understanding the students gain about how a small organization works will benefit those who land at large organizations during their various careers.

His earlier involvement with the University’s Shepherd Program, where students approach the subject of poverty from many directions, paved the way for this gift.

“I saw the same opportunity for the Entrepreneurship Program,” Connolly said, “when you have somebody like Jeff Shay leading the charge.” He especially admires the combination of a Williams School education, with its emphasis on business studies, with what he calls “the beauty of a liberal arts education. They’re totally complementary.”

“I think the world has always admired entrepreneurs,” said Connolly. “My hope is that the program helps foster a number of successful entrepreneurs, and hopefully they too will be in a position to give back when it comes their time.”