By Drew Henry
The Clemson MBA program has witnessed student ideas born in the classroom evolve into fully operating South Carolina startups. The diverse list of Clemson MBA graduate businesses includes Michael D’Onofrio and Austin Clark’s TestedHQ, a product-development testing firm that originated from an idea pitch at the MBAe EnterPrize Awards. It has now transformed into a rapidly scaling business with funding support from local investors.
While the business idea originated in a Clemson classroom, it came to life with the assistance of community networks, experienced mentors, and programming from Greenville partners like NEXT, an organization dedicated to supporting local innovators as they develop their businesses. NEXT fortifies high-growth companies rooted in Greenville through a series of programs, services, and events. The NEXT team also acts as stewards of the broader startup ecosystem (#StartupGVL), a thriving community of founders, mentors, and support organizations, all contributing to the entrepreneurial growth of the region.
“We’ve got a strong foundation here in the Upstate for startups to be successful,” says Eric Weissmann, Executive Director of NEXT. “And with the dramatic influx of newcomers to the region (20,000 new citizens a year), the next few years are going to be transformative. That’s why coordinating with partners like Clemson is so vital. Getting founders up and running, or at least failing fast, will be critical to future success — for them and for the community.”
Clemson MBA faculty have a robust connection to NEXT, including professors Matthew Klein and Joe Gibson, who serve as mentors in NEXT’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS). “NEXT hosts several programs we encourage students to participate in,” says Klein. These include foundational and networking events for students to get assistance and connect, workshop forums to discuss ideas with other founders, a free eight-week learning cohort called NEXT Accelerator, and the VMS mentor community made up of professionals like Klein and Gibson.
“The mentor program is like an advisory board of directors for these new founders,” adds Gibson. “Once students refine ideas in the classroom, they can work with seasoned professionals to further develop them among real-world considerations and challenges. For example, the TestedHQ team grew revenue with the help of mentors who had similar experiences and knew how to navigate the next steps. Many founders come into the VMS program at different stages. Some may be struggling to make their first hire, while others are generating millions and want to scale further. No matter, it’s our goal to help get them to that next level.”
Other Clemson students benefiting from NEXT programs include Julian Brinkley of MyUI, a digital interface adaptation company developing accessible user interfaces for those with disabilities, and Jerome McClendon, who is working on a digital health and wellness app called MAHI. “All three of these Clemson students came in with a different focus and at a different stage of development, which requires three very different types of programs,” adds Weissmann. “Julian went through our accelerator program, Jerome is in VMS and the TestedHQ team has been featured at our signature annual event, NEXT Venture Summit, two years in a row.”
Clemson works alongside local organizations like NEXT with the shared objective of furthering student goals and development in the region. “I’ve said before that our goal is to graduate revenue,” adds Klein. “Programs out of the classroom like NEXT provide added value to students in developing their ideas and getting experienced advice. Many MBA programs out there don’t have the same level of collaboration with external partners as we do, differentiating us in terms of students’ ability to network and build meaningful business relationships outside the classroom. Students can’t rely on professors alone because community connections are key in forming successful businesses.”
Clemson students who launch businesses while in the program are aided by Clemson partners during their start-up journey. “There is no defined path to success,” says Gibson. “Students need to figure out what works for their unique business.” Resources like NEXT provide that outside perspective and real-world experience that make all the difference. Gibson concludes, “Students get what they put into their Clemson experience, both in and out of the classroom. If they’re motivated, there is great potential.”
To learn more about Clemson’s MBA in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, click here.
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