Venture forward: Gift adds resources for Ole-preneurs
Student entrepreneurs at St. Olaf College are busy this week finalizing their pitches for Ole Cup, the annual entrepreneurial competition held on campus.
And this year, Oles have more resources to develop their ventures thanks to Steve ’61 and Billie Slethaug Moksnes ’61. Through a generous gift to the college, the couple is supporting a three-year pilot expansion of resources for entrepreneurial learning at St. Olaf.
“It’s definitely busy,” says St. Olaf’s New Associate Director of Entrepreneurship and Outreach Margaret Bransford, whose position is supported by their gift.
From her office between the college’s new makerspace and the Digital Scholarship Center (DiSCO), she has good sight into the work students are doing. In the makerspace, Oles access mechanical and hand fabrication tools, modeling materials, robotics equipment, and supplies. DiSCO offers more resources for coding, design, 3-D and large format printing, audio/video work, and similar tasks. Bransford’s colleague Ezra Plemons, an instructional technologist in digital media, also assists Oles in these spaces so that they can test ideas and build teams — functions essential to good venture formulation.
Bransford came to St. Olaf after co-founding a start-up in agricultural risk management and working as a senior business, policy, and scientific consultant across industries. She is now drawing on this expertise to help Oles develop their skills in entrepreneurship and connect to resources within St. Olaf’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“Entrepreneurship is difficult to teach — you don’t know what it takes until you’re in it,” says Bransford. “One of the most important elements in testing an idea is to try it, dive in, and see if it has legs. The spaces here give Oles a safe place to do so. They can have a conversation with me and seek the help of other Oles who can move them forward.”
Developing a good venture is about building the right team. I encourage students to identify what they do really well and what skills they need from others. They have access to resources and relationships now to build a foundation that can take them far into their future.Associate Director of Entrepreneurship and Outreach Margaret Bransford
Leading up to the Ole Cup on April 27, Bransford has offered a series of workshops exploring key concepts in venture development and pitch readiness, as well as one-on-one consulting. Students will also have the chance to connect with entrepreneurs and other professionals to gain insight into specific aspects of their ventures. These offerings complement 20 existing courses at the college in entrepreneurship, prototyping, marketing, venture formulation, management, and the legal aspects of business.
The Moksneses’ gift is also supporting a new cohort program in entrepreneurship that the Piper Center for Vocation and Career is launching this summer. A group of eight to 10 students will work for a broad range of entrepreneurial organizations in the Twin Cities metro area and gather throughout the summer to share and reflect on their work. These will include Ole-affiliated firms like Rover Robotics and Superior Switchel, social impact startups Fruitful Fertility and Imagine Deliver, ventures Tokelau Coffee and Superior Drone, legal firm Drewes Law, collaboration nexus Impact Hub, and the women-led venture capital firm Capita3.
Startups don’t typically have the resources to support interns. But with this gift, we can introduce them to an emerging professional committed to learning, and give students great experience, connections in Minnesota’s entrepreneurial network, and the chance to contribute meaningfully to a venture.Senior Associate Director of Employer and Alumni Relations Kirsten Cahoon ’98
“It’s really a win-win that gives students opportunities that wouldn’t normally be available,” says Senior Associate Director of Employer and Alumni Relations Kirsten Cahoon ’98. “Startups don’t typically have the resources to support interns. But with this gift, we can introduce them to an emerging professional committed to learning, and give students great experience, connections in Minnesota’s entrepreneurial network, and the chance to contribute meaningfully to a venture.”
For the Moksneses, combining creative thinking with business acumen is key for an education in entrepreneurship. Steve transferred from St. Olaf to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to complete his bachelor’s degree in a program that at the time was more focused on business fundamentals. He drew heavily, however, on the flexibility his liberal arts education at St. Olaf supported.
You never know in business where the next good idea is going to come from. I just have a real feel for someone who says, ‘I’ve got an idea I’m passionate about and want to take it further’ … I think it’s really neat for a liberal arts school to be doing this.Steve Moksnes ’61
After graduation, Steve took over the family business, which initially focused on lawn rakes. Under his leadership it began producing manufacturing equipment for the dairy and pharmaceutical industries, earning two patents in the process. It quickly grew from 13 to over one hundred employees before its sale.
“I think Steve needed to hear the practical, how to get through a day with all the issues that are important in running a business,” says Billie. “I’m really pleased that St. Olaf is continuing now to build resources for entrepreneurial learning. It’s really exciting — I’m all in.”
“You never know in business where the next good idea is going to come from,” Steve says. “I just have a real feel for someone who says, ‘I’ve got an idea I’m passionate about and want to take it further.’ I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to build and experiment with things, and I think it’s really neat for a liberal arts school to be doing this.”
Of 21 student teams initiating venture planning, 10 will present their pitches in the Ole Cup this Saturday. Four will receive awards. Win or lose, these Oles will receive continued support and guidance on the next steps for their ideas. The opportunities that the Moksneses are providing to bring St. Olaf’s partners and resources together will have a lasting impact down the road, helping to expand the number of Ole-preneuers.
“Developing a good venture is about building the right team,” says Bransford. “I encourage students to identify what they do really well and what skills they need from others. They have access to resources and relationships now to build a foundation that can take them far into their future, including their fellow Oles. The best business deal I ever did was with someone I’d known for 20 years.”