When you’re an entrepreneurial-minded Notre Dame student, you make a point to stop by Karen Slaggert’s office. It’s not a requirement or formal obligation, but a best practice — maybe even a ritual — that has emerged through the years.
Because those ideas in your head? They go from zero to 60 after a chat with Slaggert, the associate director of the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. Not only does she listen, question, challenge and develop ideas, but she also knows what resources you need from the Center and, most important, exactly who to connect you to in Notre Dame’s vast network.
“We have entrepreneurs in residence who meet with students here on campus. We have virtual entrepreneurs — more than 60 in our network make themselves available to any student and any alum,” she says. “They will do anything to help our student entrepreneurs succeed.”
One alum calls these relationships “collisions” because they are powerful encounters that can change lives. “You’re helping these students ‘collide’ with the resources they need, the people they need, the experiences they need,” Slaggert says.
MBA candidate Sean Kibbe called upon Slaggert early — he had only been on campus for a few weeks in May 2015. But he wanted to get a jump on the McCloskey Business Plan Competition, a renowned 6-month, four-round event at the Mendoza College of Business that offers $300,000 in cash and in-kind prizes. And even more than the prize money, the competition connects participants to relevant Notre Dame alumni.
Kibbe collaborated with an inventor developing a device to monitor heart failure patients to keep them from being readmitted to the hospital. Not only is the technology life-saving, but also inexpensive at $200 per unit. Kibbe felt it was perfect for the McCloskey competition.“I wanted to understand everything about McCloskey, when it started, what kinds of ideas typically do well, what kinds of resources are available,” Kibbe says. “Karen put me in touch with the entrepreneurs in residence at Mendoza. She gave me a ton of information. And she connected me to a venture capitalist who eventually became our team adviser.”
He pulled together a team of two fellow MBA candidates, a Notre Dame law student and a healthcare administrator. The team, called Lifelytic, painstakingly assembled a business plan.
And Lifelytic took off. The team made it through the first two rounds of competition into the semifinal round with 15 other teams. Then Lifelytic sailed into the final round of the contest, competing against seven other teams in a live presentation.
In the end, Lifelytic was edged out by a team representing a cancer treatment system. But Kibbe, who has been approached by several investors, appreciated the experience. “Going through the startup experience and hand-building something forces you to think about the details. It gives you a lot of respect for the process of being an entrepreneur and building something. And it teaches you to be realistic about the time and the costs. Operating experience is important for every area of business.”
Slaggert, who organizes the McCloskey competition, couldn’t speak more passionately about the experience for students, whether or not they win. She rattles off names of successful businesses with roots in the competition: Swyft Media, Frameri, Ash & Anvil, Wolf & Shepherd, Weekend Student Adventures.
“Students call it their most important experience at Notre Dame,” she says. “They are immersed in every part of the startup process and are constantly refining their business plan. At each round of the competition we have 10 or more reviews, and then we ask those reviewers if they are interested in continuing to help as mentors. It’s like advice on steroids.”
Visits to her office and the Gigot Center are increasing as well. “The spirit of entrepreneurship is growing. Everyone is interested in startups, innovation and entrepreneurship,” she says. “If students don’t have their own idea, they’re interested in corporate entrepreneurship or working on an innovation team. So it’s exciting to help them move in that direction.”
And her door is always open.