An Entrepreneurial Vision

When the Bryant Stibel team meets with a potential partner and proverbial “light bulbs” immediately start flashing left and right like a Hollywood premiere, it’s usually a great sign. That’s the story of the first brainstorming meeting back in 2011 between the Stibel team and John Paglia, who was the Founder/Director of the Pepperdine Private Capital Markets Project at the time and is now the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Finance.

At the time, Stibel and team were running Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp and looking to expand the scope of their research work and partner base for future projects. They wouldn’t have to look far, as the Stibel team initiated contact with the world-renowned academic institution down the road on Pacific Coast Highway to explore this potential. The partnership grew from there – and would eventually encompass everything from research initiatives to corporate donations, a course curriculum to an internship program, all yielding valued relationships that continue to thrive and expand.


Planting Seeds for a Future Partnership

The impetus for the first phone call from the Stibel team was an article published in the Wall Street Journal that cited data from the project Paglia was working on at the time. The article caught Jeff’s eye, who immediately recognized the potential for a partnership because of D&B Credibility Corp’s proven abilities in the data and research space – not to mention its access to small businesses.

Paglia was impressed from the moment everyone set foot in the same room. “It was such a high-energy kind of interaction. Jeff is just so intense, so bright and had phenomenal ideas about how we could walk the path together toward helping businesses obtain better access to capital and support.” Paglia remembers leaving the first meeting “exhausted,” but admits to being “impressed with Jeff, Judy, Aaron, the organization and their passion for supporting small businesses as well as education.”


Laying the Groundwork for What Came Next

Fueled by what Paglia describes as the Stibel team’s “can-do-let’s-do” attitude, a series of mutually beneficial initiatives followed that far exceeded any desire to partner up in theory. The first project with Pepperdine was the Private Capital Markets Survey project where Jeff and the team at Dun & Bradstreet provided access to a database that according to Paglia, “really helped us ramp up the number of responses and give our project much more credibility through increased sample size.” Not only was the D&B team able to increase the survey’s response rate from small- to- mid-size businesses by 50x, but it helped Paglia and his team produce what he calls “a phenomenal report.” In fact, it’s one that would eventually get referenced by former President Bill Clinton on Morning Joe, where he cited a study by Pepperdine on small business access to capital.

This project then dovetailed into the Private Capital Demand Index project in 2012, which as Paglia puts it, became “a quarterly barometer of the demand for private capital and loans as well as the access and success rates that small businesses have when seeking capital and loans.” The index, still produced to this day, has kept Pepperdine atop trends and indicators in the areas of private capital access and demand.

Jeff remembers the importance of the index as a harbinger of things to come back then, recalling how it “was reported on nationally and internationally to help determine not just what was happening in the economy, but to ultimately predict when we would come out of the economic recession… and when the job growth would finally start.”


The Birth of the Entrepreneurial Vision Project

Right about the time Paglia transitioned into his new role as Associate Dean at the Graziadio Business School at Pepperdine, Jeff and John started talking about how to expand the partnership between Stibel’s team and Pepperdine in new and influential ways for students, around the new models for private education and entrepreneurship.

Ultimately, what came out of these conversations was something that would have an eventual impact on Pepperdine students with a passion for entrepreneurship:  the Entrepreneurial Vision Partnership. Started in 2015, the Entrepreneurial Vision Partnership is a program that provides Pepperdine access to data for faculty research, as well as funding to initiate entrepreneurial initiatives, internships for Pepperdine students, potential jobs and other entrepreneurial types of support, speaker access and more. According to Paglia, it helped lay the groundwork for Pepperdine to establish their own entrepreneurship institute – and for Stibel and team, this collaboration helped kick off a five-year engagement with Pepperdine, opening a door for them to continue their pursuit of advancing education for future entrepreneurs of the world.

“One of things that we were trying to do was find that intersection to higher education, a passion area of Jeff’s and introduce a new model of entrepreneurship,” reveals Paglia. “So, we conceived the thought of developing an incubator type of educational platform whereby students would go through a launch process for their business and then in the interim, as they’re going through their process, get educational credit for meeting various business launch milestones.” It was a bold and benevolent vision, but defining a wise approach for executing this model was what needed to happen next.


Designing a Class With Wisdom

That’s where Bryant Stibel Founding Partner, Wisdom Lu, stepped in to take lead on this project – not only as a someone who would teach the inaugural class at the university, but as someone who’d also work with Pepperdine Professors Clemens Kownatzki and Davide Accomazzo to ensure the program was set up for success. “This course that we did with Pepperdine University was the first of its kind. I don’t think anyone in the world was doing this particular type of course,” reveals Wisdom, before speaking to its broader appeal. “Since we launched it with Pepperdine, there have been a number of other universities that have come and asked us to do the same thing with their schools. The course now includes the entire Stibel team, each doing their part as teachers and practitioners.”

Upon arriving at Pepperdine back in 2016 as the Dean of Graziadio School of Business, Deryck van Rensburg remembers being particularly impressed by the course and how the Bryant Stibel partnership helped the university build an ecosystem around the business school as an influential thought-leading firm contributing to the way their curriculum was designed. As Rensburg notes, it was “very much in line with our mission and values as a school… leaders who wish to make a contribution not only to innovative business practice but also to serve the community.”

To Rensburg, evidence of this commitment was in the unique way the course had been set up. “The way in which our students were treated with respect and as peers communicated so much in terms of how Bryant Stibel does business and the values the company follows.” He’s also quick to acknowledge the course’s effect across the student body where “the perceived quality, the kind of specialness of it, and prestige value of it has certainly added equity value” to the university given that “word of mouth is so powerful in the student base.” He credits this added value to the “experiential learning” that happens when you put students in front of a challenging dilemma so they can see how executives who deal with this stuff constantly in the real world would approach it.

As for the class content itself, Wisdom’s original course was designed to be more theoretical and tackle hedge-fund investing (hot at the time). But over the years, it has grown into more practical applications that involve students working on real investment opportunities and projects that ultimately support investments in certain companies. It’s morphed a bit more of late to encompass “the world experience of investing,” according to Wisdom, but unlike most classes that are rooted purely in theory, students who participate in the entrepreneurial program get to experience a little twist.


Putting Presentations in Front of the Partners

In an effort to marry real-world experience along with the theory of finance, it makes sense that this course does not begin – and end – in the classroom. As a pinnacle for students, the class culminates in presentations given at the Bryant Stibel offices. In the same vein of work that Bryant Stibel engages in, Professor Kownatzki explains that the presentations are focused on investment analyses of companies “that have a good business model, but where something is not working.  And where we as a company, as a private equity firm, could actually go in and fix it.” Jeff reveals that, “Ultimately, we use those interviews and those presentations to determine the best of the best and those few individuals – typically anywhere from four to six students out of a thirty-student class – get a summer internship at Bryant Stibel.”

Professor Accomazzo works with the Stibel team to prepare the students to defend their ideas and analyses, noting that leaving the comfortable classroom environment in exchange for a dose of investment reality brings out the best in his pupils. In addition, Professor Kownatzki praises the potential benefits of the internship stating, “Last year, we actually got six internships for the summer… and two of them were actually asked by Jeff and his team to stay on until December.” Kownatzki also points out that the tangible portfolio pieces resulting from this program are a powerful differentiator in the job market, adding about the interns, “They have very, very good jobs now. One of them has a position with the Financial Futures Exchange in Shanghai and the other is working for Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte in North Carolina.”

But that’s not where the benefits end, according to Wisdom. “The other thing that has been really important through this effort is that we have been able to help these students who otherwise might not have any business experience do some networking, meet with executives of private companies, public companies, and get to sit in on meetings that I don’t think I got to sit in on until I was, you know, well into my career.” On a more personal note, Wisdom reflects, “It’s just really fun to be able to work with them in a way and to teach them things we otherwise would not have been able to teach through the classroom setting.”

Her greatest hope, in fact, for the students after their time interning at Bryant Stibel is that they come out of it with an understanding of what it is they really want to do with their lives and what they don’t want to do with their lives. Yet another dose of wisdom.


Looking to the Future and Beyond

 Beyond the research projects, the course curriculum, the presentations, internships, and involvement in the initiatives previously described, the partnership with Pepperdine has flourished in many other ways as well. Jeff has given symposium keynotes, class lectures, and presentations to the board of directors on health, medicine, the brain, business, and economics. In addition, Jeff also received an honorary business doctorate from Pepperdine in December 2015, delivering the commencement speech to Pepperdine’s Graziadio Business School that same year – one that Paglia applauds as “very well-received by the students and the faculty about the power of ‘no’ and finding creative solutions to challenges that exist.” Paglia credits the speech as being “quite inspirational for the graduating class.”

“I believe in the concept of giving back and not just with my wallet,” Jeff reveals of his humble servitude to university activities. “Pepperdine has asked a lot and I applaud them for doing it. And each time they have, I hope I’ve delivered at least in part.”

In terms of the bigger picture for Pepperdine and the potential for the partnership to grow further, Jeff declares, “I couldn’t be more pleased. We now have close relationships with the president, with the dean of business school, with a number of professors within the business school and economics and we continue to do more and more, both on the research side as well as on the teaching side.”

Dean van Rensburg hopes the partnership continues to offer students extraordinary experiences in the future. “We know the classroom is important, but it’s more than the classroom; it’s got to be immersive; it’s got to be experiential; we’ve got to put students in front of dilemmas and help them to think through those dilemmas. Bryant Stibel seems to excel not just at the technical aspects, but there’s a thoughtfulness, a ‘thinking into the future’ type DNA that is highly compatible with an educational institution.”

It’s a sentiment that’s in line with Jeff’s goal for the company – to have a broad impact on the people who need it most:  students. “Whether it’s through teaching, giving back philanthropically, speaking or intern programs across the entirety of our portfolio, both myself personally and Bryant Stibel more broadly, will continue to give back to Pepperdine, to universities and to educational institutions throughout the world.”

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