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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Life-long Innovator at the Helm of ODU’s Strome Entrepreneurial Center

She didn't know it until years later, but Nancy Grden has been an entrepreneur since she was an elementary school student growing up in Pittsburgh.

"In grade school I would be the one suggesting to the teacher, 'Let's do it this way,'" she said. "I didn't realize I was an entrepreneur way back then, and I surely didn't know what an entrepreneur was."

Grden was hired in November, 2014, as the first permanent executive director of the Strome Entrepreneurial Center at Old Dominion University. Backed by an $11-million gift from the Strome Family Foundation, ODU's Strome Entrepreneurial Center features an innovative program designed to empower ODU students from any academic discipline to create economic and social value in Hampton Roads, and beyond.

The Center's mission is to help students navigate the entire life cycle of the entrepreneurial process - from "pre-idea" to idea and through the planning, research, analysis, startup and initial operations stages.

In her new role, Grden replaces Jim Lant, instructor of management in the Strome College of Business, who acted as interim executive director of the Strome Entrepreneurial Center during its inception phase. Lant still acts as an adviser to the Center as well as Grden.

Grden's early entrepreneurial impulses continued at the University of North Carolina, while she was a student earning a master's degree in Urban Planning after graduating from Bucknell University with a B.A. in Economics. Because she thought the school needed one, Grden approached UNC administrators with the suggestion and funding to start a student-run urban planning journal. She was the first editor of Carolina Planning, an academic journal that still flourishes today.

"I was being an entrepreneur, and I didn't realize it," she said.

The ongoing process of building, adapting, growing and rebuilding has followed Grden throughout her career as she earned an M.B.A. at the University of South Carolina and, then, in banking and in health care-related industries during periods of significant market change. Work with Bank of America brought her to Hampton Roads where she experienced first-hand the importance of innovation and new product development "intrapreneurship," or acting like an entrepreneur while working inside of a large organization.

Grden also worked with and experienced start-up opportunities with dynamic entrepreneurs like Dr. Ronald Dozoretz, who started national mental health company ValueOptions; and Jeff McWaters, who founded health insurance firm Amerigroup.

"They are truly visionary in how they can see opportunities, not only on the horizon, but over the horizon," she said.

Grden relied on her own vision when she was instrumental in the formation and launch of Genomind, a personalized medicine biotech company for neuropsychiatry, where she was responsible for development, commercialization and strategy. She is also founder and president of Avenir LLC, an entrepreneurship and innovation-focused firm that directly advising new and emerging companies.

Grden sees similar, over the horizon, opportunities at the Strome Entrepreneurial Center.

Old Dominion University President John R. Broderick said a career-long track record in entrepreneurial activity, along with her significant work as a student and business mentor, made Grden a perfect choice to lead the Center.

"It was important for the students and the program to be led by someone who has been a successful entrepreneur. Nancy has exactly the skill set, energy and passion necessary to launch the Strome Entrepreneurial Center. She has already been a significant hit with the students," Broderick said.

Grden is a strong supporter of Old Dominion University and its efforts to create a campus-wide entrepreneurial culture. She previously served as chair of the Executive Advisory Council for Old Dominion's Strome College of Business and was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the ODU Educational Foundation.

Enthusiasm for the Center shone through recently as Grden led a tour of the new space on the ground floor of the Visual Arts Building, which was dedicated during ODU's Entrepreneurship Week last September.

"When I first saw this space, I saw such a great opportunity," Grden said, walking through the Visual Arts Building's refurbished lobby. "Look around here. There are little workspaces; it's perfect for events. The beauty of this space is it can be used for a variety of activities.

"What I'm eager to do is make sure the campus community knows it is available," she continued. "We offer free consultations to those interested in starting businesses, as well as events, contests and internships."

That's because Grden - thinking of a young Nancy Grden - embraces a broad definition of "entrepreneur." To her, an entrepreneur could be a theater major who wants to better promote her productions. Or, it could be a future teacher who wants to instill adaptability and problem-solving skills in his students. Perhaps, it is students who want to innovatively solve social and public policy problems.

"I think many people don't even realize when they're being entrepreneurial," Grden said. "Not everyone has to be (Apple founder) Steve Jobs. But we can all do entrepreneurial activity wherever we are."

For that reason, Grden is excited to be the first executive director of the Strome Entrepreneurial Center. She wants to help build on the startup culture that has existed in ODU since its inception; helping provide the tools necessary to use entrepreneurship to push the entire University forward.

"If you look at the demographic interests of these students, they want to work on their own. They don't want to go to work for somebody else. We offer the tools, skills and encouragement to help them do that," she said.

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