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Building Winning Entrepreneurial Teams

Sweeping success in national competition leads to successful startups by graduates

Competitive. Disciplined. Tenacious. Those are the characteristics used to describe Carol Reeves, who has developed a hugely successful entrepreneurship program at the University of Arkansas. That’s why those who know Reeves like to call her “The Coach,” and that’s how Fortune magazine also described Reeves in 2011 when it named her one of the nation’s 10 most powerful women entrepreneurs.

Neil Bora, a graduate student at Arkansas, compared Reeves to college football coach Nick Saban, whose teams have won four national championships at Alabama and LSU.

“She preaches the process, she wants people to stick to the process, to learn and study your market, and the results will follow,” he said.

Clete Brewer, a successful entrepreneur, likened Reeves to a coach closer to the University of Arkansas’ heart.

“Carol is the John McDonnell of collegiate business competition coaches, for sure,” said Brewer, referring to the retired track and cross-country coach whose teams won an unprecedented 40 national championships at Arkansas.

Under the guidance of Reeves, the University of Arkansas has fielded competitive graduate student teams at state, regional, national and international business plan competitions since 2002. During the past decade, students have won more than $2.2 million in cash at these competitions. 

Nationally, the U of A has won 20 national business plan competitions, two times more than the closest competitor. In 2012, the university became the first school to have three different graduate student business plan teams win a qualifying competition for the Venture Labs Investment Competition, which bills itself as the “Super Bowl of business competitions,” marking the first time any university won three qualifying contests for the competition in the same year.

In 2013, the U of A became the first institution to have four teams qualify for the event.

Reeves built a powerhouse by relying on a formula that utilizes students from different disciplines. They usually include strong business students from the Sam M. Walton College of Business, one of the top 25 public business colleges in the country, and then students selected from other colleges based on needs for the particular project.

“My ideal team is a science/technology person, a marketing person and an accounting person,” Reeves said, “and some of the team members need to be excellent writers and presenters.”

That system worked with Silicon Solar Solutions, which won more than $70,000 in cash and $40,000 in in-kind awards in business plan competitions in 2010.

Douglas Hutchings, who competed on the team and then became its president and CEO when it moved from student competition to a start-up company, said Reeves worked tirelessly to help Silicon Solar Solutions succeed.

“She’s one of the more giving people that I know, especially when it comes to her time,” Hutchings said. “She has, without fail, always been there for us, even on a moment’s notice. Entrepreneurship is tough and a strong support system is vital, and she’s always been perfectly willing to help when you ask for it. Dr. Reeves has been fantastic and instrumental in getting us to where we are.”

Trish Flanagan, who competed with Picasolar, a team that won more than $300,000 at competitions in 2013, agreed that Reeves is committed to her students.

“For Carol, setbacks are a sign to think of something else, to work around them,” Flanagan said. “She’s a fiercely determined, hard worker. At every one of our competitions, she spent hours and hours going over our business plans. She’s got a big place in her heart for people and their needs.”

Flanagan also sees something else that Reeves has in common with the best college coaches, like a Saban or a McDonnell.

“Her secret magic is recruiting,” she said. “She has the ability to see people’s raw talent and their willingness to work hard. She seeks it out and nurtures it.”

Reeves is associate vice provost for entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas and holds the Cecil & Gwendolyn Cupp Applied Professorship in Entrepreneurship in the Walton College. She won the 2014 Southeastern Conference Faculty Achievement Award.