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

New Strome College Dean Jeff Tanner Fuses Academics, Business, Service

When Jeff Tanner was 10 years old, he sold Christmas cards door to door as a part-time job. He had a talent for the task, but that's partly because the young entrepreneur had one aim in mind.

"They had a tethered P-51 Mustang model airplane for top sellers, and I wanted to win it," Tanner said.

Realizing his goal, Tanner earned himself a bonus Christmas present, and flew the gas-powered model aircraft so much he practically wore out the tethering lines that held the plane in place.

A professional marketer turned academic, Tanner now has a new goal to challenge and excite him. And as the new dean of Old Dominion University's Strome College of Business, it involves far more complex machinery than his P-51 Mustang.

For Tanner, who accepted the Old Dominion position in January, the hardest part was waiting until his appointment started in May.

"It's very much like being a kid again, and knowing Santa Claus is coming," Tanner said, during a recent interview in his Constant Hall office. "You're anxious for the day to get here, but that excitement isn't going to make it get here any sooner."

Tanner - a former professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., and founder of the Baylor Business Collaboratory - assumed the role May 25, succeeding Interim Dean Vinod Agarwal.

At Baylor, Tanner was responsible for securing funds and research opportunities for collaborative research with area businesses, to grow both the academic and business profile of the University. He sees his role at Old Dominion similarly, albeit on a larger scale as the lead executive of the Strome College.

"This college, this University, has an incredible story to tell," he said. "We have great faculty, strong University leadership that supports entrepreneurship, a local business community that is happy to collaborate and a great population of students to draw from."

Outgoing University Provost Carol Simpson is thrilled the search for a new dean led to Tanner.

"We are delighted to have Jeff take the helm of the Strome College of Business. He brings to us considerable administrative experience in higher education, including the creation of a highly successful business collaboratory, in addition to expertise in his academic discipline of marketing," Simpson said.

Tanner, who worked for eight years in the industry before returning for his doctorate in marketing from the University of Georgia, has maintained his professional outlook during a career in academia.

"It's making business happen," he said. "What happens in that last three feet is how you make the sale."

Despite an impressive academic publishing record, Tanner said the nature of what business schools do is changing, and the need for schools to be entrepreneurial and community focused is greater than ever.

"The challenge is to attract and retain the best and the brightest into our industry, given the nature of those changes," he said. "What is also needed is to rethink the nature of the business academy, to take back the position of thought-leadership in business."

The changes are necessary, because traditional business schools are facing challenges from new areas, including a massive industry of business self-help programs and services to train the next generation of executives.

"We need to provide a little bit different approach. One that is going to distinguish us from something students can get from a book and a video," Tanner said.

Part of that new approach at Old Dominion involves an emphasis on entrepreneurship, to empower students and boost the economy. Tanner's experience with start-ups as an angel investor and partner will serve the Strome College of Business emphasis on entrepreneurship.

An $11-million gift from the Strome Family Foundation in 2014 aided the University in creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem for students. Strome College students work extensively with the University's new Strome Entrepreneurial Center through every step of the business start-up process.

"We welcome Jeff as the new Dean of the Strome College of Business," said Nancy Grden, executive director of the Strome Entrepreneurial Center. "In addition to his academic achievements, his experience and focus on innovation and business community collaboration make him a strong partner for the entrepreneurial work we have underway here at the Center and Old Dominion."

In academic studies that started before he moved to Hampton Roads, Tanner worked with economically challenged populations in this region's economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. For that reason, Tanner's vision of entrepreneurship isn't solely that of the Ivy League graduate with a tech startup and venture capital.

For Tanner, entrepreneurship can provide durable benefits to society, through transactions as simple as teaching first-generation college students, with lower socio-economic status backgrounds, how to market themselves.

That social entrepreneur spirit is very important to Connie Merriman, assistant dean of the Strome College. She is the faculty adviser for Enactus, the student-based social entrepreneurial organization formed at Old Dominion last year.

"Dean Tanner's focus on entrepreneurship that makes a difference is very much the spirit of what Enactus represents. We are excited to continue growing the organization, serving student social entrepreneurs across campus, and helping to meet urgent community needs," Merriman said.

Tanner hopes those type of interactions also help the students themselves. An educator himself, the new dean has always loved interacting with students, and will continue to do so here in Norfolk.

"Our goal is the same whether it is students, faculty, entrepreneurs or businesses. We want to accelerate their success. And when we all work together, we can accelerate the success for all," he said.

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