September 25, 2023
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How pirate tactics built an entrepreneurial ecosystem


Renee Rock

By Reneé Rock

“It’s better to be a pirate than to join the navy.”

When Steve Jobs uttered this phrase, he was speaking to the Mac team, which had become a kind of splinter group with its own identity within Apple. Jobs knew what he was up against at fast-growing Apple and intuitively understood that when it comes to staying relevant it’s not just better to be a pirate yourself, sometimes the empire needs to hire some pirates.

Jobs’ quote has become a mantra for any big institution with a rabid fear of becoming obsolete in a fast-changing world where disruptive technologies are sinking tall ships faster than the USS Constitution.

Why pirates? A pirate can function without a bureaucracy. A pirate can stay creative and on task in a difficult or hostile environment. A pirate can act independently and take intelligent risks, but always within the scope of the greater vision. Finally, pirates are more likely to embrace change, challenge convention and overcome crewmembers with a tendency toward mutiny and derailing new initiatives.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, grab some grog, pull up a stool, and we’ll chart ye a course to building yer own pirate culture.

At California Lutheran University, our call to arms came in 2012 from Gerhard Apfelthaler, incoming dean of the School of Management. Cal Lutheran is a small, private liberal arts and sciences university situated roughly halfway between the behemoth Silicon Valley entrepreneurship empire and the flourishing entrepreneurship hotspots extending from Los Angeles to San Diego. Having hailed from a thriving entrepreneurial university in Austria, Apfelthaler brought with him a vision to create a vibrant, sustainable entrepreneurship ecosystem along the 101 corridor, burgeoning with new technology startups.

The task was not for the squeamish. To get there, we needed resources we didn’t have: money and space for a startup center, university and community support, and talented staff to build and run our programs. But most of all, we needed a group of change agents with an extraordinary ability to buck convention while maintaining the diplomacy skills of a foreign ambassador. We needed pirates.

The call was answered by Mike Panesis, Bill Gartner, Daniel Ball, Greg Monterossa and me. Over the next five years, our band of misfit pirates forged a path to accomplishing what seemed impossible at the time. By integrating the university, an award-winning off-site startup center with co-working space we dubbed Hub101, entrepreneurs who generously gave their time and resources to our students, community members eager to network and create startups, and a growing community deeply invested in sustaining the momentum we’ve achieved so far, we created a flourishing entrepreneurial ecosystem that extends from the West San Fernando Valley to San Luis Obispo.

Hub101 has more than 100 members and has hosted startups that have raised venture capital and moved on to prestigious accelerator programs.

Two weeks ago, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers honored Monterossa with the 2017 Buenaventura Award for Outstanding University Partner. Successful entrepreneurs sharing their stories regularly attract packed houses to the Center for Entrepreneurship. Within the university, we launched an entrepreneurship minor that is open to all students regardless of major. Promising startups have received thousands of dollars, support services and valuable advice through our New Venture Competition.

Of course, we must give our captain his due. By giving all the power to a splinter group of pirates who actually made stuff happen, Apfelthaler allowed our entrepreneurial initiatives to set sail.

• Reneé Rock teaches entrepreneurship at California Lutheran University.