Davidson College is transforming an abandoned textile mill into an entrepreneurship and innovation launching pad for the Lake Norman region.
The Hub@Davidson is emerging as a unique venture among top liberal arts colleges at a time when education and entrepreneurship are joining forces in new ways across the nation.
The project gained a high octane boost in recent weeks with a $1 million gift from alumnus Ed Van Deman '69, CEO of Financial Navigator, Inc., and his wife Dr. Nancie Fimbel. Their support will fund a full build-out of an initial 6,000 square feet, in this first-of-its-kind center that will connect campus with community to promote innovation and help accelerate the regional economy. Five more spaces are planned to follow as funding "ventures" forth.
The Hub will cluster classroom, research and creation space for the college and partner companies and organizations to work together.
Jaimie Matthews Francis, director of programs and operations for education and workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, said Davidson is cutting a new and needed path by integrating academics, entrepreneurship, technology and careers. Students need a clear link between their college experience, whether in the classroom or from the broader experiences and skills they gain, to their career interests.
"We can't think of career preparation as a separate goal anymore," said Francis, a 2007 Davidson alumna. "Connecting coursework directly with what's going on in the world can create a clearer and more useful path for students."
Companies tend to think of community colleges and technical schools as more responsive to employer needs, and liberal arts colleges tend to think of workforce experience as off-mission. The Hub is another step in Davidson's reimagining of the liberal arts experience. Workforce experiences help provide students the problem-solving skills they need to lead and serve in a rapidly evolving economy and interconnected world.
"More effective collaboration between higher education and business is not about producing widgets," Francis said. "It's about providing experiences for students that will make them more aware of what life is like post-graduation, challenge them to solve real life issues, and stretch their thinking in what it means to contribute to a team, company or community."
This winter, workers gutted the 1920s Bridgeport Fabrics building that once spooled out garden-chair webbing and automobile window liners for mid-century America. The college bought the building, next to the Brickhouse restaurant, three years ago and is re-fitting it toward "warm shell" status with a new facade, roof, windows and HVAC systems.
"There's a great flexibility in going into a space like that, knowing some of the things you want to do but not all the things you want to do," Van Deman said. "Within the academic heritage and tradition of Davidson, you need all the flexibility you can build into it."
Van Deman was a founder of Financial Navigator. The company introduced the first integrated general ledger accounting and portfolio management software solution to the high-net-worth marketplace in 1983 and has continued leading innovation in that field.
The Hub@Davidson's initial, LEED-certified build-out, slated to begin this summer, will include:
"The Hub@Davidson aims to connect with, and help grow, a vibrant Lake Norman-area technology, innovation and entrepreneurship community," said President Carol Quillen. "Ed and Nancie's vision and generosity will support unprecedented opportunities for our students to apply their academic work and entrepreneurial spirit. It will also expand opportunities for partnerships that leverage the intellectual capital of Davidson students, faculty and staff for the benefit of our region."
Van Deman, who was a math major at Davidson, has seen first-hand the value of sharing intellectual capital between the academy and the world of work. His home base of Mountain View, California, sits in the shadow of Stanford University.
Large research universities have long connected academic and applied work. In recent years, some liberal arts colleges have made efforts toward bringing entrepreneurs and students together through a variety of academic centers, institutes, programs and consortiums.
"The Hub@Davidson, as a full-scale regional facility in a liberal-arts setting, is a distinguishing initiative that propels Davidson into the vanguard of educational entrepreneurship," Van Deman said.
It also fits the mission and ethos of the place he knew as a student.
"Davidson says, ‘We want to create people who can make a difference in society,' he said. "‘We're not going to tell you how to do it, but we're going to help you get there.'"
Mark McDowell, an investor and entrepreneur who was a founding partner of Acta Wireless and other start-ups, said mentors and angel investors in the Lake Norman area are keen to work with Davidson students who choose to follow entrepreneurial paths after graduation.
"We see The Hub as a mixing bowl of students, faculty, entrepreneurs and been-there-done-that execs," said McDowell, a judge at Davidson's 2017 Venture Fund competition.
Belk Scholar Erin Davenport '18 has plugged into the college's innovation resources, from attending events like a visit by Bain Capital managing director and Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, to pitching an art-museum app idea during Davidson's 3 Day Startup competition. Most recently, she partnered with a classmate to mount a residence hall art exhibition around disability issues.
She has seen the entrepreneurial resources and connections that her friends enjoy at larger, more tech-centric universities.
"Where Davidson has succeeded," Davenport said, "is in balancing the value it places on a liberal arts education with forward-thinking opportunities."
The Hub@Davidson will help future students see connections and possibilities, Van Deman said, even as this first phase in funding, bricks, mortar and programming serves as a case study for the entrepreneurial spirit at Davidson, in the region and beyond.