The First Years Out
‘They Are Acting on Their Convictions’
A great idea, a desire to serve and a lot of
hard work help young entrepreneurs
launch their organizations.
COURTESY SEKE BALLARD ’06
Seke Ballard ’06 didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. He originally wanted to be a lawyer, and at
one point he majored in philosophy, which he
still loves. But halfway through college, he decided that
business was a more practical major. While finishing his
degree, he participated in the Carolina Challenge, which
helps potential entrepreneurs hone a business plan and
lets them compete against one another for seed money.
His team’s idea — a business that would fix software
problems remotely —
didn’t win. But the
experience set him on
a path he couldn’t
After college, he
joined the Peace
Corps and went to the
Republic of Georgia
to work with a non-
profit involved in
he wasn’t sure how the
concept would fly in
economic climate, he suggested setting up a business-
plan competition modeled on the Carolina Challenge.
“The Georgians showed me to be a fool,” he says of
his doubts. “They were very receptive to the idea.” The
program worked so well in the resort town where he
launched it that it was soon implemented nationally.
The recent military conflict with Russia has put the
project on hold, but he hopes it will resume.
Ballard, who is pursuing an MBA at Harvard, is just
one of many young alumni whose trajectory has been
profoundly affected by the emphasis UNC has placed
on entrepreneurship in recent years. Spurred by a $3.5
million grant from the Kauffman Foundation and
building on the existing strengths of the Kenan-Flagler
Business School, the University created the Carolina
Entrepreneurial Initiative in 2004. Initiative components
include the Carolina Challenge, an undergraduate
Seke Ballard ’06
didn’t realize he was
an entrepreneur until
he entered the
business plan competition. Now he’s pursuing his MBA at
entrepreneurship minor and a graduate entrepreneurship
certificate for students in the arts, the life sciences or
public health. These and other campus activities, both
in and outside of the business school, develop students’
entrepreneurial skills and prepare them for a range of
business, scientific, social and artistic enterprises.
The effort has created a culture of venturing on
campus, says Ted Zoller, executive director of Kenan-Flagler’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. “Students
are really looking at entrepreneurship as a tool of change.
It can be social change or change in private enterprise.
They’re looking to develop new business models to
attack problems. They could end up with a nonprofit
with a social aim or a for-profit that improves the well-being of its users or consumers. What’s fascinating is
that when students come in with an idea, they really
want to come up with the next new thing. They are
usually on the frontier.”
According to a survey conducted in fall 2006, 73
percent of Carolina seniors aspire to start their own
business or nonprofit. With training from CEI behind
them, some young alumni are doing just that. Some of
them were always headed toward starting a business.
“I definitely had an entrepreneurial mindset from a
really early age. I just didn’t know what to call it until I
got into academia,” says Jessica Crowell ’07. “Carolina
let me find all sorts of people who think that way.”
One of those was fellow business major Melissa
Adelman ’07. Together they are starting a business
called Size Me Up, which will sell software to online
clothing retailers to help customers order the correct
sizes ( www.sizemeuponline.com). Crowell calls it a
currency converter for clothing. Their business idea
won first place, $15,000, in the commercial track of the
Carolina Challenge in 2007.
Crowell and Adelman are working day jobs in
finance and spending their evenings and weekends
developing and testing their product. The seed money
they won is helping them get going, but their experience on campus had other effects as well. “We found at
Carolina not just the competition, but a whole community that was very supportive of our idea and tried
to make it happen,” Crowell says. Winning the competition also gave them momentum, media coverage and
introductions to a broader business network.
Like Crowell, Joel Sutherland ’07 was headed generally in a business direction when he came to Car-