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Jan. 4, 2012

South Dakota Launch Conference Nationally Recognized

Rhonda Pole

Barb Heller

MITCHELL – For the past six years South Dakota colleges and universities have gathered together for the annual South Dakota Launch Conference to share in a common goal – advancing entrepreneurship education in South Dakota.  Dakota Wesleyan University’s Kelley Center has hosted the event since its 2006 inception. 

That outreach has brought the conference and its organizers national attention.

The South Dakota Launch Conference, which occurs every year in February during National Entrepreneurship Week, is one of four finalists for an Excellence in Entrepreneurship Education Innovation Award through the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE) – a prestigious award that not only calls attention to Launch, but the nomination celebrates the partnership that created it.

“Launch began as an answer,” said Rhonda Pole, executive director of the Kelley Center for Entrepreneurship at DWU. “When I began in entrepreneurship education, I was trying to get my arms around what entrepreneurship education was, because I was totally green to the field, and through meeting others in the state in the field of entrepreneurship education, we began to converse and share ideas.  Through those conversations with each other we discovered that there were an abundance of resources out there to tap into, but students didn’t know how to access them and educators had difficulty working out ways to make them accessible. When we asked the question, ‘How do we bring innovators and business resources together for students to really cultivate their entrepreneurial spirit?’ the answer was Launch.”

Pole coordinates Launch in partnership with the Enterprise Institute; South Dakota EPSCoR; South Dakota Governor’s Office on Economic Development; South Dakota Small Business Development Centers; and fellow educator and coordinator Barb Heller with the South Dakota State University Entrepreneurial Studies Program.

Heller and Pole will present at the USASBE conference Jan. 12-15 in New Orleans, along with the other three finalists for the award. Each finalist will give a presentation in front of their peers and the audience will choose the winner.

“The purpose of Launch is to inspire students to pursue their ideas and give faculty the resources to effectively teach entrepreneurial concepts,” Heller said. “It’s an extraordinary honor for the Launch event to be recognized by the USASBE organization; it underlines our commitment to serving the students and faculty of South Dakota.” 

The other three finalists are: the Brock School of Business-Samford University, Birmingham, Ala.; the University of Utah, Salt Lake City; and the University of Texas-Dallas.

“Being nominated really is an honor, and that’s not an empty ‘Oscar’-type cliché,” Pole laughed. “Making it to the finals for a prestigious award such as a USASBE award is huge in our field. The fact that South Dakota was named in the top four in the nation for entrepreneurial education – it’s difficult to communicate that kind of achievement for us. We’re so proud and just being nominated gives South Dakota Launch Conference national attention. Educators and students from colleges and universities nationwide will see this. Winning would be extraordinary, but being nominated is, in itself, a recognition of what this program and the state has accomplished.”

USASBE is comprised of more than 1,000 members from universities, colleges, businesses and nonprofit organizations and the public sector. The organization gives out three different awards a year – the Entrepreneurship Education Innovation Award is a peer-based award.

Nominations can come in several categories or in combination of all: pedagogy, teaching, scholarship and outreach. Launch was nominated because of its outreach. The annual conference has managed, over the past six years, to bring 80 percent of the state’s colleges and universities under one roof to discuss entrepreneurial thinking.

“What we’ve accomplished, through years of work and partnership, is a full loop in the state,” Pole said. “We feed into one another. For example, we collaborate with events such as Innovation Expo, Governor’s Giant Vision and other events supporting entrepreneurship. The goal being to foster a statewide culture of entrepreneurship - all of us building on one another.”

This unified partnership has brought a large state, filled with individual opportunities, into a cohesive system. “It is very gratifying and humbling to know that Launch received the nomination for this award from USASBE.  The Launch partners all realize that we have a great event that truly brings higher education and resources together in South Dakota.  By bringing it to a national forum, perhaps other states will see the value and seek to replicate the model developed here in South Dakota,” said Sue Stoll, South Dakota Small Business Development Centers.

“Apart, we may never have been able to make it. Together, we have brought some of the leading entrepreneurs in the country to our state,” Pole said. “Everybody has done their part to make this happen on a shoestring budget.”

This year’s keynote speakers at USASBE, Nick Freidman and Heidi Neck, are national speakers on entrepreneurship. Freidman spoke at Launch in 2011 and Neck will be at Launch this year.
Launch was nominated by nationally award winning entrepreneurs, Michael Simmons and Sheena Lindahl, co-founders of Extreme Entrepreneurship Education, that has also appeared at Launch for three years.

“The conference has a focused message, exposing students from over 80 percent of South Dakota universities and colleges to key skills that will help them get and create jobs and build the state’s economy,” wrote Lindahl in her nomination letter.

Lindahl also goes on to describe the importance of introducing students to the resources available and that by connecting students to speakers and resource providers, they are able to begin mentorship and networking early in their careers. Faculty also have a special session during Launch, geared toward teaching entrepreneurship in the college setting.

“Launch continues to pave the way for effective exposure and education on the topic of entrepreneurship across the entire state of South Dakota, opening the state up to the power of rural entrepreneurship,” Lindahl goes on. “Whether awarding the effectiveness of the program or the success and dedication of the people behind it, this group undoubtedly deserves the honor.”

Contact Information

Rhonda Pole, Executive Director of the Kelley Center for Entrepreneurship, Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell, 605-995-2902, rhpole@dwu.edu

Barb Heller, Entrepreneurial Studies Coordinator, South Dakota State University, Brookings, 605-688-6522, Barb.Heller@sdstate.edu

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