Learning Curve

It’s a little like that joke George Carlin told years ago, the one where he speculates about what John F. Kennedy Jr. would think or say when asking a cab driver to take him to J.F.K. Airport in New York.

When Andy Scibelli heads to the office now, he goes to a building with his name on it — the Andrew M. Scibelli Enterprise Center. Like other tenants, the former president of Springfield Technical Community College is trying to get a fledgling business off the ground.

In this case, it’s Scibelli & Associates, a consulting venture he started soon after retiring 18 months ago to help other colleges do as the team at STCC did — think entrepreneurially. By that, he meant creation of programs to help spur entrepreneurship, or E-ship, as he calls it, and, if possible, create incubator facilities to help new businesses get a solid start. To do that, colleges would themselves have to become entrepreneurs in the sense that they would have to take risks and think outside the box.

STCC did all that in the creation of its enterprise center, which includes two incubators — one for area high school and college students and the other for more-established businesses — and also houses the college’s Entrepreneurial Institute and a number of agencies that support small businesses. Scibelli led the team that acquired the funding and assembled the various components that comprise one of the most comprehensive programs of its kind in the country.

That’s why his name is on a sign over the front entrance, and also why he feels eminently qualified to help other colleges and universities undertake similar initiatives.

In an interview with BusinessWest, Scibelli said he has worked with a few public colleges in the Northeast that are exploring entrepreneurship programs, while also handling a few interim-president assignments — at Massachusetts Bay Community College and, more recently, Berkshire Community College.

He said Scibelli & Associates is still mostly a part-time pursuit, one that he looks to grow through word-of-mouth referrals, marketing, and networking. Those are some of the skills that, like other business owners in the SEC, he is still acquiring.

Actually, there have been several adjustments for Scibelli, who served as STCC’s president for 22 years.

“Before, when I wanted a PowerPoint presentation, I just called some people and a few days later, it was there,” he explained. “Now, when I order a PowerPoint, I’m ordering me to take care of it.”

Name of the Game

Learning PowerPoint has actually been one of the simpler challenges for Scibelli to wrestle with since retiring in the summer of 2004 — that and getting accustomed to the notion that his name is also his business address.

“That took a little getting used to … it’s cool seeing your name on the building,” he said. “A few times, I’ve been introduced to some people here who don’t know who I am; they hear the name and ask, ‘is this your building?’”

It’s not, but it came to be a part of Scibelli’s vision to make the portion of the old Springfield Armory located on the east side of Federal Street into a unique economic development initiative. It started with the creation of the STCC Technology Park in 1996, which currently houses more than a dozen technology related businesses that employ nearly 800 people, and continued with the conversion of one of the oldest Armory buildings into what was then known as the Springfield Enterprise Center.

The SEC was designed to promote entrepreneurship in a number of ways — through its incubators, which currently house a number of small businesses, support organizations based there, such as SCORE and the Mass. Small Business Development Center Network, and the Entrepreneurial Institute, which promotes programs for students at all levels.

When Scibelli retired, administrators at the college moved to rename the facility in his honor. He now occupies a suite on the ground floor, next door to former radio and television sales executive Fred Steinman, who last year bought the local franchise for the direct mail company Valpack.

In many ways, the SEC is not only Scibelli’s business home, it’s also a selling tool as he acts as consultant for colleges and universities mulling entrepreneurship. In other words, it’s a working model of an effective E-ship program, and it displays the many benefits that may come to a school — everything from closer ties to the business community, to a hands-on link to K-12 students, to strong media attention.
This is the message Scibelli has brought to several schools, including Broome Community College (BCC) in Binghamton, N.Y. An old industrial center, Binghamton is in many ways like Springfield in that it is looking for new economic development opportunities and has an inventory of older, mostly vacant mills that could be converted into incubators.

“They want to look at the full menu of opportunities when it comes to entrepreneurship,” said Scibelli. “They wanted to find out more about the subject, including incubators.”

BCC’s motivations are many, he continued, adding that the school wants to explore ways to expand its role in the community while also help in bringing new jobs to the region; there are currently 17 businesses in the Technology Park at STCC, and another nine in the SEC, said Scibelli.

“In Binghamton, as in most communities that are experiencing a downside, the Chamber and other business groups are saying, ‘who can come to the rescue?’” he explained. “For colleges to jump in and create businesses and jobs, that’s wonderful and everyone wants to cooperate.”

BCC is still in the early stages of creating an E-ship program, said Scibelli, noting that he is also working with Worcester State College in the preliminary steps toward a venture that may involve the school in new economic development initiatives there.

“That’s a city that’s re-inventing itself,” said Scibelli, referring to a shift within the state’s second-largest community from manufacturing to the biosciences and other technology-related fields. “And the city wants the colleges to play a role in that.”

To generate interest in E-ship programs and the opportunities they present for both two- and four-year colleges, Scibelli has staged a few seminars on the broad subject, including one early last year at Cornell University, and has another planned for next month in Florida. His goal is to get the schools’ presidents involved early on, because this is how to get the ball rolling.

“Without the commitment from the CEO, the president, a lot of this stuff never flies,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter what the level of commitment is from everyone else; if the CEO isn’t on board, it’s not going to happen.”

What he tells school presidents, and everyone else who’s interested, is that while entrepreneurship programs help the community, they can also bring a return on investment, or ROI, for the colleges themselves.

This can take a number of forms, he said, noting that some incubator ventures can actually become profit-making ventures. But in the meantime, schools can, and often do, increase enrollment, develop a broader donor base, add certificate and degree programs, and establish niche identification.

“If you fold it into the mission of the college, it has nothing to do with making a profit; it has to do with service,” he explained. “It’s another arm of an educational resource for the community — one that happens to grow new businesses.”

Culture Shock

As for his new business, Scibelli said he wants to achieve controlled growth. Elaborating, he told BusinessWest he wants it to be a successful venture, but not one that will become all-consuming.

He currently averages a few hours each day at the SEC, but generally works when and as long as he wants, and keeps his eyes (and schedule) open to other interim assignments or consulting projects. Meanwhile, he’s traded designer suits for designer sweatshirts and jeans, and is getting used to the notion of having no one to supervise but himself.

“I’ve had to learn how to do a lot of things,” he said, referring back to his adventures in PowerPoint. “Overall, I’ve really enjoyed the transition and being entrepreneurial.”
And he wants to show colleges and universities how to do the same.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]