Teacher and Entrepreneur: Cliff Holekamp ’96 Alumni at Work, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship, Olin School of Business, Washington University in St. Louis
“I recognized an opportunity to use entrepreneurship to create economic development in the city.'”
When large companies abandoned St. Louis, Mo., in the 1990s and early 2000s, the city was left with a void that was shrinking its economic base.
Today the city is much stronger, and is, according to Business Insider, the U.S. city with the fastest growing start-up scene.
Cliff Holekamp ’96 had a lot to do with that turn-around. In his role as senior lecturer and academic director for entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis, Holekamp has turned his passion for building an entrepreneurial eco-system in the city into real results.
“The city had struggled. I recognized an opportunity to use entrepreneurship to create economic development in the city,” said Holekamp, who soon will be joining the Board of Advisors for Washington and Lee’s Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics.
Holekamp explains that through his work at WashU, “I have helped students launch more than 100 companies that have gone on to raise more than $70 million and employ approximately 450 people since 2008.” In his role as co-founder of Cultivation Capital, a venture capital firm now rated as the most active in the Midwest, he has invested in 64 companies that have raised $480 million and created more than 1,000 jobs — most in downtown St. Louis.
“I’m very passionate about entrepreneurship as a vehicle for economic development. Economic growth creates stability and helps solve social problems,” he said.
AT WashU, Holekamp founded the Entrepreneurship Platform — one of five major areas of study in the Olin Business School. A “platform” he explained, is more inclusive than a major, and provides counseling, job placement, clubs and other services for students. “It’s a holistic approach,” he said.
Holekamp also co-founded the social entrepreneurship program for WashU, which is a partnership between the business school and the Brown School of Social Work that trains students through courses in both schools to develop entrepreneurial solutions to address social needs and problems.
Holekamp’s students get the added benefit of being taught by someone who has been an entrepreneur himself. Holekamp’s first business was Foot Healers, a company he began in 2001 and sold in 2007. The podiatry centers combined a doctor’s office with a retail store and were located in retail centers — “one stop shopping,” he says, that helped alleviate the fear often associated with visiting a doctor.
Holekamp began his career with a sales position for IBM in Nashville, Tenn. He later decided to pursue an MBA, and enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis. After receiving the graduate degree, he poured his energy into Foot Healers. When he sold the company, he went back to WashU to teach and lead the entrepreneurship program.
Four years later, he co-founded Cultivation Capital, which manages multiple funds and accelerator programs. Holekamp focuses on tech start-ups for the company, which raises capital from individuals, endowment funds and corporations. “We invest in early-stage companies to help them grow and someday sell,” he said.
Holekamp believes that in order to create economic growth through entrepreneurship, three things are needed, beginning with talent. “Building great things starts with great people. That’s why I’m so passionate about working at WashU. The talent at the university offers a huge advantage for our region.”
Secondly, an entrepreneurial eco-system needs capital, Holekamp said. Initially, there was almost no investment capital in St. Louis for start-ups and early-stage companies. He helped start and served on the board of a nonprofit organization that provides $50,000 Arch grants to entrepreneurs to help them stay in or move to St. Louis. The Arch Grants and the work of Cultivation Capital have changed the investment landscape, allowing the city to attract great talent to start and accelerate companies.
The third ingredient, Holekamp said, is density. “There should be close proximity of people and money. Start-ups need to network to get resources.” Closely connected entrepreneurs “start to create a community and develop a culture which then attracts more people.” This is why Holekamp serves on the board of the T-REX tech incubator in downtown St. Louis. Founded in 2011, T-REX is now one of the largest co-working spaces in the nation.
Through all those efforts, Holekamp said the reputation of St. Louis as a place for young people to live and start businesses is being redefined. He believes strongly that growing new companies, “not stealing companies from other regions” is the best way to stimulate the economy. “Taking St. Louis and transforming it is very exciting.”
Holekamp began his career path as a journalism major at Washington and Lee. Although he always knew he wanted to go into business, he also wanted the total liberal arts experience. With the Williams School set within a liberal arts university, he got exactly what he was searching for in a college. The communications skills he learned through his major have been critical to his success as an entrepreneur, he said, and the management courses set the pace for his future MBA.
He served as business manager for the start-up newspaper, The Trident, which was founded and run completely by students. He also served as acting chair of the Contact Committee, bringing a variety of lecturers to campus, and served in various leadership positions for Chi Psi fraternity.
Most of Holekamp’s philanthropic work revolves around the start-up environment, and he has served on the boards of a number of companies and nonprofits. Currently, he serves on the board of the St. Louis Zoo and the leadership council of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, which conducts research to help find solutions for feeding the world.
At Washington and Lee, Cliff and his family made the leadership gift that allowed the renovation in 2007 of the former Co-Op and bookstore into Holekamp Hall, which houses faculty offices for the Williams School. He previously served as president of W&L’s St. Louis alumni chapter, and received the University’s Distinguished Young Alumnus Award in 2011.
He has also received numerous professional awards, including being named to Hot Topic’s “Top 100 Entrepreneurship Professors Worldwide” in 2015, St. Louis County’s “Outstanding Entrepreneur Award” and St. Louis Business Journal’s “Top 30 Under 30” and “Top 40 Under 40” lists.
When not creating or cultivating businesses, Holekamp enjoys getting out into the country with his wife and two daughters.
– by Linda Evans