Group photo of students in the UT-Austin Incubator classroom
Students in the Thomas S. Johnson Master of Science in Entrepreneurship visited the UT-Austin Technology Incubator with its executive director and UF alumnus Mitch Jacobson.

Entrepreneurship students visit with the stars of Austin’s entrepreneurial scene

Students in the Thomas S. Johnson Master of Science in Entrepreneurship had the opportunity to meet with global companies, startups and venture capital firms thanks to Business Gator connections.

In recent years, more and more companies have made the eastward move from the tech hubs of California to Texas. The state’s capital city, Austin, has become a popular new home for established businesses, startups and venture capital firms.

Twenty-seven students in the Thomas S. Johnson Master of Science in Entrepreneurship (MSE) program had the opportunity to meet with many of the people who make up Austin’s vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem as part of an experiential learning trip in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center’s Austin Immersion Program.

The immersion program is a course students can take that allows them the opportunity to better understand real-world applications of the theory and cases discussed in class regarding innovation and entrepreneurship, explained Clinical Associate Professor and Academic Director of the MSE program Alex Settles.

“We had been reading about Austin and the movement from California and other locations to Texas. It was amazing to see this up close,” Settles said. “After our trip it has become clear to me that Austin has created an innovative space for entrepreneurial and new venture creation. I believe these types of experiences move students outside of their comfort zone and into the learning zone where they can explore real world networks and connections.”

During the week-long trip, the students met with more than a dozen businesses from the global company Dell Technologies to startups in the University of Texas – Austin Technology Incubator to venture capital firm Next Coast Ventures. All these connections, Settles noted, were made possible because of the vast network of Warrington College of Business alumni.

“Cheryl Cook (BSBA ’85) at Dell was instrumental in organizing an amazing half day visit to Dell Technologies, Thomas Ball (BSBA ‘89) of Next Coast Ventures introduced us to the concept of entrepreneurship through acquisition and organized a day and half of visits with VCs and startups such as the founder of RetailMeNot, Flosports, Brand Foundry Ventures, and Alex Smith (BSBA ‘81) of Brown Advisory introduced us to the amazing people at Brown Advisory, Kizen and Cvex,” Settles shared.

At Dell, the students received an executive-level briefing of the international technology firm. Cook, who is SVP for Global Channel Marketing, along with North America VP of State, Local Government and Education Strategy Leslie Harlien, gave an overview of Dell’s overall corporate strategy as well as the firm’s involvement in the Austin and global innovation ecosystem.

A number of other Dell leaders spoke on topics ranging from the company’s venture investment activities to how Dell works to incorporate its technology into partners’ products and solutions utilizing both Dell’s technology and supply chain assets to create value with its partners. The students also got an in-depth look at the Dell Technologies testing facility where they saw developments in edge and distributed computing software as well as a firsthand experience with Dell’s augmented reality product investments.

For Sam Arensman (MSE ’22), who is interested in pursuing a career in the finance industry, the visit with Dell was the most valuable part of the trip as it gave him the opportunity to connect with Dell’s Florida Area Leader Michael Shafran.

Shafran was impressed with Arensman’s resume and thought he would be a good fit for the Dell finance team. Arensman has since applied to work with Dell based on Shafran’s recommendation.

“This visit turned out to affect my future a lot more than expected as there might be an opportunity to start my professional career with Dell!” Arensman said.

In addition to Warrington alumni Cook, Ball and Smith, Laura Johnson (MSE ’09) connected the group with startups Valkyrie AI and DISCO, Frank Lao (BSBA ‘91) shared about the work Dimensional Fund Advisors does with entrepreneurs, Mitch Jacobson (BSBA ’80) presented on the work of UT-Austin’s Technology Incubator and Dominique McLeggan-Brown (BA ’07, MSE ’08) shared insights into the Austin entrepreneurial scene from her perspective as an attorney for the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The range of work and perspectives of Business Gator alumni in Austin helped the students get a complete picture of the entrepreneurial experience, Settles explained.

“These visits gave students a 360-degree view of the innovation, entrepreneurship and venture finance ecosystem of Austin,” he said. “We had been visiting Silicon Valley for the previous six years, with two years of virtual trips, but we wanted to return to visit the companies so that students could meet and interact with representatives of these companies. The question-and-answer periods and informal networking activities provided an opportunity for students to engage with these contacts.”

For Jazmyn Foberg (MSE ’22), the opportunity to make connections was the most valuable part of the class visit to Austin. The former USA gymnast and Gator gymnast had previously worked closely with FloSports, a sports streaming service that the students met with in Austin, when they created a documentary based on Foberg’s life as a gymnast. The representative who the students met with remembered Foberg and the two were able to forge a new connection.  

“Seeing how many connections I made with FloSports, former Gator athletes, and my classmates was awesome,” Foberg said. “I learned how important it is to make connections with people who have the skills you lack because they can help you with your future career or venture.”

For Chad Rickabaugh (MSE ’22), the opportunity to hear directly from the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who have turned their business goals into reality was his favorite part of the trip. One UF alumnus in particular made an impact on Rickabaugh – Tom Ball, who also organized a reception for the students with Warrington Dean Saby Mitra to celebrate the students’ first visit to Austin and introduce them to Sara Puil, the founder of Boxt.

“Tom Ball is one of those rare individuals that when he speaks, you hang on to every word,” Rickabaugh said. “He encouraged me to take risks in my business ventures and provided the class with a roadmap to capital through the Austin VC network. With knowledge gained during this trip and from Tom Ball, I now have the confidence and know-how needed to secure seed funding for my own start-up.”

Valeria Marcia (MSE ’22) found her biggest takeaway from the trip in the words of Kizen CEO John Winner, “If a person is more successful than you, it is because she has made more mistakes than you.”

“Thanks to the dialogue with successful people I got to know on this journey, I realized that everyone has built her success with commitment, no one is perfect and omniscient,” Marcia said. “For this, it is important to have a network of people you can count on and to whom you can ask for help.”

A special thanks to Tom Ball, Cheryl Cook, Mitch Jacobson, Laura Johnson, Frank Lao, Dominique McLeggan-Brown and Alex Smith for helping to create an informative entrepreneurial learning experience for our MSE students.