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

Sen. Warner Meets, Inspires ODU Student Entrepreneurs

By Brendan O'Hallarn

He's a two-term U.S. senator with a national profile who entered politics after a long, successful career as an entrepreneur.

But on a recent visit to Old Dominion University's Strome Entrepreneurial Center, Sen. Mark Warner played a different role - coach.

"Give me your pitch," Warner told a small semicircle of Old Dominion students who are already business owners.

The Virginia senator was making his first visit to the Strome Center since its 2014 dedication. And he listened intently to the short pitches by the student entrepreneurs, offering suggestions and insight from two decades as a venture capitalist.

As the students told Warner about their businesses - ranging from handmade accessories business 2 Pink Peas to Greek Global, which provides online services to manage fraternity and sorority bid processes - Warner asked questions about business plans, investors and time management.

To Greek Global founder Dane Howard, Warner offered contact information for a student entrepreneur at another university working in a complementary business.

He also offered advice.

"Almost every successful business has something in common - there is almost never a solo CEO," the Warner told the students. "Nobody's got all the answers, and the outside perspective is invaluable. Don't be afraid of taking on investors, or partners."

Nancy Grden, executive director of the Strome Entrepreneurial Center, beamed with pride as the students made their short pitches.

"We've been here two years now. It's hard to believe," Grden said. She told Warner, a former governor of Virginia, that these students have formed friendships and alliances by working side by side in the center and in the shared working space across the hall on the ground floor of the Visual Arts Building.

"That type of energy is part of the benefit of creating a physical space like this."

Old Dominion President John R. Broderick accompanied Sen. Warner on his visit. He singled out Grden as the perfect person to be the Strome Center's first executive director.

"In addition to being terrific at running the programming at the center, she's been an entrepreneur herself for more than 20 years," Broderick said. "Her personal experience is invaluable for these students."

Broderick told Warner the diverse array of student pitches he received are "exactly what we envisioned when we talked about creating this center."

Old Dominion's entrepreneurial initiative has taken full flight since 2014, powered by the gift of $11 million from the Strome Family Foundation, led by alumnus Mark Strome '78, which helped fund the creation of the center.

Besides providing assistance and coaching to student, staff and faculty, and alumni entrepreneurs, the center acts as the pivot for other ventures on campus that are focused on business startups.

For the past three years, six faculty members have been selected annually for the Entsminger Fellows program. They are charged with bringing entrepreneurship into the University's academic colleges.

Old Dominion also maintains a decades-long effort to be a resource for the local business community through support initiatives such as the Center for Enterprise Innovation (CEI), which evolved from the University's Business Gateway in 2014. The CEI seeks to foster local economic growth through a series of interconnected programs created to help local entrepreneurs, such as the Technology Applications Center, Women's Business Center and Hampton Roads Veterans Business Outreach Center.

In July, the ODU Innovation Center - Norfolk, a partnership between CEI and the City of Norfolk, was launched. It provides area entrepreneurs with a space for collaboration and a comprehensive program of services designed to grow a community of scalable entrepreneurial businesses within Norfolk's Innovation Corridor.

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