Brad Cleveland ’82 wants St. Olaf College students to realize how much fun it can be to be an entrepreneur — no matter what type of organization they’re interested in building.
So Cleveland, who recently stepped down as CEO of Proto Labs and is working on plans to launch a technology development company, helped the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career develop a new business plan competition.
The Ole Cup, modeled after the highly successful Minnesota Cup, provides several students with the resources to help turn business ideas into reality.
The winner of the Ole Cup receives $7,000 and is paired with alumni and parent mentors to receive pro-bono legal, accounting, and human resources services to support the business for up to one year. The second-place finisher receives $5,000 and the third-place finisher $3,000.
The winner of the Ole Cup automatically qualifies for the semifinal round of the student division of the Minnesota Cup, the largest statewide new venture competition in the country. The winner of the student division of that competition is awarded $20,000 and can compete for the Minnesota Cup Grand Prize of $50,000.
Increased support for entrepreneurship
The Minnesota Cup grew out of a business plan competition that Cleveland’s father started at the University of Minnesota 15 years ago.
“It’s become a very effective funding source for entrepreneurs,” Cleveland says. “My thought was that we should try to do something similar at St. Olaf, with the winner feeding into the Minnesota Cup.”
That idea fit in perfectly with the Piper Center’s increased efforts to support and nurture student entrepreneurship. The Ole Cup was held as part of St. Olaf’s Entrepreneurial Summit, a daylong event that featured keynote speaker Adam Gettings ’04, the founder of RoboteX and co-founder of Leeo, and the student-run STO Talks.
“Employers that hire Oles are interested in entrepreneurial skills. If, as a student, you have started your own company, grown your customer base, and delivered a quality product, those are skills students can take anywhere,” Piper Center Director Branden Grimmett ’03 says. “Entrepreneurial skills are critical for careers ranging from performing arts to business.”
Gifts from Cleveland and St. Olaf Regent Greg Buck ’77 and his spouse, Lisa Nave Buck ’77, which were bolstered through the college’s Strategic Initiative Match program, provided initial funding for the Ole Cup. The Strategic Initiative Match is a St. Olaf Board of Regents initiative that provides matching funds for gifts above $50,000 that support the college’s strategic plan.
A strong training ground
Cleveland says it never occurred to him to consider becoming an entrepreneur while he was a student at St. Olaf. Instead, he spent a lot of time in the physics lab building data acquisition systems consisting of sensors and computing systems. That led to careers at Honeywell and MTS Systems, as well as graduate school.
“After about 10 years I got the bug to build a business, and started one with a friend,” he says.
He co-founded an MTS subsidiary before applying to become the CEO at a 10-person company called Protomold, in which he was also an early investor. He recently retired from that position at what is now Proto Labs, a company that had Minnesota’s most successful initial public offering of the last decade and has grown to include more than 750 employees in six countries and over $160 million in revenue.
Cleveland says he has been well-prepared for each position he’s held during the course of his career — from project manager to sales and marketing roles to CEO — by the liberal arts education he received at St. Olaf.
“All in all, I had great undergraduate training for what I did,” he says.
Now, as he works to start a technology development company aimed at producing energy at a lower cost and with reduced CO2 emissions, he wants to encourage a new generation of Oles to think about entrepreneurship.