Recent multimillion-dollar gifts will establish Texas A&M University as one of the nation’s leading schools for aspirational entrepreneurs.
It’s a short step from the Aggie spirit to the entrepreneurial spirit. Known for character, courage and a willingness to work hard, Aggies don’t wait around for an opportunity. They go out and make them—and in so doing, create opportunities for others.
That’s why Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School and the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship (CNVE) is rapidly becoming the top choice for young entrepreneurs. Thanks to recent multimillion-dollar commitments from Peggy and Lowry Mays ’57 and the late Arthur “Artie” McFerrin Jr. ’65 and his wife Dorothy, Mays Business School has never been a more attractive option. Whether it’s an engineering graduate student with a design to patent or a high school senior with dreams of disrupting an industry through innovative technology, the CNVE is making their dreams a reality.
“If they have a great idea, we can take them to the next level,” said Dr. Richard Lester ’03, CNVE director. “There is a national trend toward entrepreneurship right now. Millennials are dissatisfied with the idea of corporate life and aren’t interested in just having a job. They want to love what they do, and many of them are interested in starting their own businesses. Texas A&M and Mays Business School are well positioned to equip these young people for the future economy.”
One such millennial is Christopher Bybee ’17, who’s been an entrepreneur for as long as he can remember. “I’ve always had the itch to grow something and create something valuable,” he said. “It’s never been about the money. It’s just a thrill for me to create something that adds value to someone’s life.”
He started his first ‘real’ business at age 16, when he and two buddies developed SnoBoat, a mobile snow cone stand on Lake Austin. From supply chain to cash flow, SnoBoat was the perfect, low-stakes environment for learning to run a business.
A business honors and finance major, Bybee got acquainted with the CNVE during his freshman year while working at Startup Aggieland, CNVE’s business incubator. Startup Aggieland offers Aggie entrepreneurs a myriad of resources to get their businesses off the ground, from counsel on intellectual property laws and mentorship from former students to office and cloud computing space. Bybee became involved with a tech venture called Shadowbox Media and traveled to New York City as a sophomore to pitch the company to venture capitalists.
“We were a little cocky going into it, and we didn’t receive funding,” he said. “But getting knocked down was good for us, because we learned a lot about what it takes to be successful. I would not have had that experience without the CNVE.”
Not to be discouraged, during finals week of his junior year, Bybee built a plan for a custom apparel business aimed at Texas A&M student organizations, most of which order T-shirts on a regular basis. What if he could provide a simple ordering experience tailored specifically to students?
Bybee and a classmate, Walker Ryan ’16, launched R.B. T-Shirt Co. their senior year and quickly became profitable, using outstanding customer service as their guide star. “If someone texted about an order at 1 a.m., we responded immediately,” he said. “We added an extra layer of care that students weren’t finding anywhere else.” In their first year, they filled orders for about 45 organizations. R.B. T-Shirt Co has hired three students to keep the venture going, now that Bybee has graduated and taken a job with Bain & Co. Consulting in Dallas.
“Despite these great entrepreneurial experiences, I still have a lot to learn,” Bybee said. By working with Bain to improve its clients’ businesses, Bybee will add to his entrepreneurial toolkit. His dream is to be a serial entrepreneur, building and selling great businesses.
“My biggest takeaway from my entrepreneurship education at Texas A&M is simply the willingness to go do it,” he said. “Donors and all the people working behind the scenes at the university give students that chance. Many companies that come out of Startup Aggieland may not pan out, but the experience of trying is a lesson more powerful than anything you read in a book or learn in a class. I am thankful for the people at Texas A&M who have pushed me to take risks.”
Since 1999, the CNVE at Mays Business School has trained visionaries from all industries to transform ideas into successful businesses. The center started small, with just a handful of programs that touched a few hundred business students per year. Today, the CNVE is a powerhouse of innovation encompassing 27 programs. Its staff work with more than 3,000 students per year from various disciplines to hone and launch their business ideas.
“The beauty of the CNVE is its flexible programming,” said Lester. “Students of any classification from across campus can opt in for training. Some programs are short-term business boosts; others offer ongoing support. More than grooming specific skills, these programs train students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset: to believe they can achieve and not give up when the going gets tough.
Thanks to the recent gifts from the Mays Family Foundation and the McFerrins totaling $35 million, there’s never been a better time for a student to pursue entrepreneurship at Texas A&M. “These gifts are transformational,” said Lester. “Our goal over the next five years is to create a state-of-the-art program at the newly renamed McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship. This funding will allow us to expand, create new programs and link others for a cohesive experience. It will help position Texas A&M as one of the top schools in the nation for entrepreneurs.”
The recent gifts will also allow for physical expansion. The CNVE currently has space in the Wehner Building and at Research Park, but with rapid programing growth and increased demand from students, more room is necessary.
“Entrepreneurship is now embedded in the framework of Mays Business School as one of three grand challenges in our strategic plan,” said Dr. Eli Jones, dean of Mays Business School. “We look at every class and project through the lens of entrepreneurship, and encourage our students, faculty and staff to adopt an approach of explorer, producer and promoter in all they do. It is an exciting mechanism for creating transformational leaders, which is our mission.”
Entrepreneurship education is close to the heart of Lowry Mays and was also paramount for McFerrin, who passed away in August. Both translated entrepreneurial setbacks into springboards to success and want other Aggies to learn from their experiences.
Mays graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in petroleum engineering before entering the Air Force. He later earned an MBA from Harvard University before beginning a career as a securities banker. He fell into entrepreneurship when his friends defaulted on a loan he had co-signed allowing them to buy a radio station. He knew nothing about radio, but rather than sell the asset that was now in his name, he decided to see if he could make it work. Over the years, Mays built his company brick by brick, adding more radio stations, then later outdoor advertising, television and live event management. When he sold Clear Channel Communications and its subsidiaries after 36 years of sustained growth, it was worth $20 billion.
“My business was all about my customer and what he wanted to sell his customer,” said Mays. “When people asked, I always told them ‘I’m in the car business,’ or ‘I’m in the restaurant business,’ because we were in the business of selling our customer’s products. That’s how we became the largest radio network in the world.”
McFerrin graduated from Texas A&M with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering before starting a position at Shell Chemicals. “After a few years, I realized that a career in a large corporation, with all its bureaucratic hindrances to growth and innovative thinking, was stifling,” he said in an interview before his passing. “Luckily, I was laid off due to budget cuts.”
Undeterred by the setback, he launched a career in sales and renewed his emphasis on education and personal growth. He began working as a business consultant, then was offered a job managing a chemical plant that was losing money. Soon after, he saw an untapped niche market in the chemical industry and pursued it with all his ambition. Despite major challenges, including a lack of funds, in just 11 weeks he created KMCO LLC, a chemical processing and manufacturing company, from the ground up. His first major client was his former employer, Shell.
In 1990, McFerrin established KMTEX, a high-volume distillation company. He purchased South Coast Terminals in 1995 and pursued partnerships in several other chemical processing plants. Like Bybee, McFerrin said that once you have the experience, education and positive entrepreneurial mindset, you should “just go for it.” “Worry about the details later,” he added. “No one ever learns anything wise and important until he or she has to overcome adversity.”
Thanks to these commitments, Texas A&M is well-positioned to grow the next generation of world-shaping entrepreneurs. “Small business is the cause of all job growth, and the future depends on creating and supporting small businesses,” McFerrin said. “More entrepreneurs equate to more job growth for the state, nation and world. We want Texas A&M to have the greatest entrepreneurial program in the world.”
Mays agrees. “Texas A&M’s business school is climbing the nation’s rankings. This school has everything it needs to be great in terms of people, programs and desire. I can’t explain how enthusiastic I am to see the young people who are graduating from Texas A&M. They are exceptionally well-prepared.”