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

Real Estate Investment Entrepreneur Urges ODU Students to Take Risks

Jon Wheeler, president and CEO of Wheeler Real Estate and Investment Trust (REIT), is a self-made, serial entrepreneur and a stunning business success. So what he told students during a speech at Old Dominion University's Strome Entrepreneurial Center seems counter-intuitive.


Wheeler, a serial entrepreneur who says he "knew it the day he was born," told students to expect curveballs and setbacks and outright disasters on the way to success. Instead, he urged students to use each adverse event to learn and adjust, and as motivation.

"The days of working 30 years with the same company are over," Wheeler said. "Don't be afraid to make decisions where you don't know the answers ahead of time. I realize now what I didn't know before, and 10 years from now, I'll realize what I don't know today. And that's OK.

"It's a mindset and it's a philosophy. You're going to make a lot of mistakes."

Wheeler's lunch-time speech was part of a regular series of events planned for the Strome Entrepreneurial Center. 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. That guidance includes academic and professional programming, conducted by local entrepreneurs and experts.

Started in 1999 as Wheeler Interests, a company focused on the acquisition, renovation, leasing and management of commercial shopping center properties, Wheeler REIT has grown to encompass a portfolio of 37 shopping center properties, rapidly growing. The company went public on NASDAQ Exchange in 2012, an event that followed an incredibly turbulent time in the real estate industry - the market crash of 2008.

"For us, 2008 was bad, 2009 was worse, 2010 was awful," Wheeler told the students. "You think you know what you're going to do today; it will change."

From those difficult days during the economic slowdown, Wheeler REIT has flourished, with the NASDAQ Exchange listing being the culmination of what Wheeler has spent his career building, in Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas and here in Hampton Roads.

"I still get teary-eyed thinking about it, because it's powerful," Wheeler said of November 19, 2012, the day that Wheeler REIT debuted on the NASDAQ exchange.

Andrew Cohen, instructor and manager of the Gregory A. Lumsden Trading Room and Research Lab in the Strome College of Business, introduced Wheeler as the very embodiment of the entrepreneurs Mark Strome sought to create with his $11-million gift to Old Dominion University that helped create the Entrepreneurial Center.

"When Mark Strome talks about the many qualities that make an entrepreneur successful, he might as well be talking about Jon Wheeler," Cohen said.

When Wheeler was asked to speak to a Wall Street 101 class that he teaches in the Trading Room, Cohen said the local businessman did much more than anyone could expect. "He told me that one class wasn't nearly enough to go over the things he wanted to tell my students, so he volunteered to do six classes."

Cohen said Wheeler has pledged, as a reward, to fly top students to New York on his private jet, so the student can accompany him to the NASDAQ Exchange, where Wheeler REIT is listed. He has also pledged $50,000 to support the student investment fund led by Strome College students.

Speaking directly to the students in the audience, Wheeler urged them to believe in themselves, starting with putting together a resume that commands attention. "That is your first ego piece. You want to put your very best foot forward," Wheeler said.

Then, speaking about colleagues who have come up through the ranks of companies where he has worked, Wheeler encouraged the students to find their own path as well, and not be too daunted if that path includes some unexpected detours.

"You learn from the past. You learn from those mistakes," he said. "Change and change on a daily basis. Remember that and try to embrace it.

"I'm not doing anything different than anyone has ever done, but it's a matter of finding your passion and going after it."

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.

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