Alumni Column – Entrepeneurial Training

Amy Satin Spinelli '93

I did not set out to become an entrepreneur. Frankly, when I was a student at Colgate, I probably would have lumped the word ‘entrepreneur’ into the hazy category of ‘business’, which was something I assumed I wanted nothing to do with. I was a true student of the liberal arts. I came to Colgate with the ever-popular major, ‘Undecided’, and took classes that seemed interesting to me. After Colgate I went to law school and I worked as a corporate lawyer at a Manhattan firm before leaving the traditional corporate world to work for small technology companies seeking to improve education and ultimately working for myself. I founded a sports graphic design company and presently help students and parents navigate the process of applying to college as a college admissions consultant. So, thirteen years after graduating and a few careers later, I realize that I have become an entrepreneur, and Colgate provided me with many of the tools essential to success in entrepreneurship.

To be a successful entrepreneur, one must take educated risks. Some people are born risk-takers; most of us are more risk-adverse. Being in a supportive environment in which I could take risks and knowing that friends and faculty were behind me made me venture into uncharted territory. After studying two years of Japanese language at Colgate I participated in the Japan study group, living with a family outside of Kyoto. Traveling halfway around the world to live with a family I did not know, who did not speak English and who ate foods that were unrecognizable to me was way outside of my ‘comfort zone’. But that seemed par for the course at Colgate, where, among my Colgate roommates, we traveled to Japan, England, Spain and India during our junior year.

Another characteristic of a successful entrepreneur is self-confidence. One must not only have confidence in oneself, but must be able to transfer that confidence to anyone you might want to do business with. Colgate provided an environment in which confidence can develop. When I thought it would be a good idea to teach local elementary students about environmental issues, my idea was met with encouragement to start a student organization. The Colgate administration’s immediate support was crucial to building my confidence that I could start an organization when I identified a need. As a result, I founded the Green Earth Gang, my first venture into entrepreneurship.

Good listening is critical to starting and running a successful business. Understanding the needs of your clients and being open to constructive feedback are key ingredients for running and improving a business. Although I am not aware of any courses at Colgate in listening per se, the importance of listening is prevalent on campus. Being part of a dynamic liberal arts college in which dialogue is encouraged and participation in small class discussions is expected hones one’s listening skills. I learned this the hard way when Professor Balmuth called on me during Intro to Logic when I was staring out the window thinking about my plans for that evening.

Making smart decisions is also important no matter which career field one enters. Again, there are no courses listed in Colgate’s catalog on this topic; it falls into that category of ‘education beyond the curriculum.’ Good decisions rely on thorough information gathering, being open-minded and considering other perspectives, thinking through the repercussions of any possible path, being decisive and leaving oneself a parachute. These are aligned with the goals of the residential education program at Colgate and the process by which one succeeds in a liberal arts education.

Now that I work with high school students applying to college, I know that some universities offer courses in entrepreneurship and some even offer this as a major in a business program. I’m sure those courses offer important information for those who wish to start their own businesses, but I believe that the most important skills for any entrepreneur are those that can’t really be taught from a textbook. Having a broad based liberal arts education is critical. One needs to know a little about a wide range of subjects and must have strong interpersonal and communications skills. You need to be flexible and willing to roll up your sleeves and do whatever needs to get done, whether that means making photocopies or being persistent in reaching out to a high-level executive that you’d like to do business with. I feel empowered by the education I participated in at Colgate – the idea that if something doesn’t exist I can create it has served me well in creating a career that allows me the flexibility to be home with my young children.

A successful entrepreneur must have a strong network of contacts and smart advisors. I am grateful to the incredibly intelligent people I met at Colgate – faculty, friends and fellow alumni – who have supported my endeavors, provided useful advice and helped expand my network. I did not realize while a student at Colgate the power of the Colgate network, and I urge all students to take advantage of opportunities to keep in touch, and to make connections with Colgate alumni. As a current member of Colgate’s Alumni Board I enjoy visits to campus a few times a year. If you see me or any of the other Alumni Board members (or any other alumni for that matter) around campus, please don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation. We are excited to get to know students and help with career plans in any way that we can. You never know where it could lead!