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Old Dominion Student Entrepreneurs Watching Fellow Business Owner Donald Trump with Interest

By Brendan O'Hallarn

They may - or may not - have voted for Donald Trump in November. But Old Dominion University's student entrepreneurs sense something familiar in the President.

Now that Trump has been sworn in as the nation's 45th president, some of the students who offer business advice and encouragement at ODU's Strome Entrepreneurial Center see inspiration in his surprising journey to the White House.

"I think it's interesting having a well-known entrepreneur in the Oval Office," said Janay Brown, an ODU sophomore who started her Internet-based bacon business, Full Belly Delights LLC, while she was in high school.

Brown's business has evolved significantly since it was founded three years ago. Adaptability is something she sees in Trump as well. "Maybe a new mindset and way of thinking will have a positive effect on the country and its economy," said Brown, a management major.

Patrick Ryan, a business student and graduate assistant at the Strome Entrepreneurial Center, said Trump identified a market for his "product" and confidently pursued it, despite constant criticism.

Founder of the business startup resource Exponential Partnerships, Ryan likened Trump's unconventional campaign to Apple's decision to ditch the headphone jack for its iPhone 7. After Apple faced criticism for removing the traditional 3.5-millimeter audio jack, using a single port for both charging and audio amplification, its tweaked technology was soon accepted as the industry standard. Ryan said Trump took the same approach to running for president.

"Trump pushed to figuratively remove America's headphone jack and campaigned like an entrepreneur instead of a politician," he said. "Whether you agree with him or not, the campaign that Donald Trump ran was successful for many of the same reasons that entrepreneurs achieve startup success."

Nancy Grden, executive director of the Strome Center, spoke with many of her student entrepreneurs about Trump in the days after his election. Some were pleased, others dismayed.

Grden's long career in business startups, and in policy discussions, has brought her in contact with many entrepreneur-turned-politicians, including Virginia Sen. Mark Warner. In November, Warner, who had a long career in business before entering public life, held an impromptu roundtable with ODU student entrepreneurs at the Strome Center. Warner listened to quick pitches and dispensed business advice to the Old Dominion students.

Grden said being an entrepreneur and a public servant are "not as diametrically opposed" as many observers believe. "Both identify problems to solve, propose possible solutions, hear from potential customers or constituents, then execute on a plan," she said.

She added, however, that business leaders face significant differences when they cross over to public life.

"Entrepreneurs expect to make a profit, which is measurable, whereas public-sector leaders have diverse realms of responsibility, such as public safety, where it is harder to identify metrics of success," she said.

For that reason, Grden said many entrepreneurs become frustrated with the nature of governing.

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 students, staff and faculty, and alumni entrepreneurs, the center acts as the pivot for other ventures on campus that are focused on business startups.

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