Dirk Brown to direct new entrepreneur institute

The University of South Carolina has tapped tech entrepreneur, marketer and educator Dirk Brown to lead its recently established McNair Institute for Entrepreneurism and Free Enterprise.

Brown, who has served as director of the Faber Entrepreneurship Center at the university’s Darla Moore School of Business since 2011, brings more than 22 years of experience in creating and leading technology companies and teaching entrepreneurism, free enterprise and intellectual property strategy.

The institute was announced last November by university alumnus Robert McNair, founder and CEO of the NFL’s Houston Texans and founder of Cogen Technologies. Funded by the Robert and Janice McNair Foundation with an $8 million endowment, the institute aims to foster student learning and involvement in entrepreneurism through innovative and interactive courses, engagement with entrepreneurs and experiences working on real-world projects.

Brown says the institute’s goal is to inspire and cultivate the next generation of entrepreneurs.

“Our plan is to build upon all the best practices for applied, entrepreneurial education in a way that makes the material highly relevant and highly engaging for students from all different backgrounds,” Brown says. “We will combine online learning tools and mentor networks to give our students the absolute best possible theoretical and applied education in this field. Our students will be ready to hit the ground running and receive ongoing support so that they can outperform students from anywhere else in the world.”

The institute will first launch a pilot course in entrepreneurism and free enterprise for students from all majors and disciplines. In addition, a Capstone Conference that will make successful entrepreneurs available to students will cap off a series of events, lectures and initiatives that will complement in-classroom learning.

“The McNair Institute provides a platform to expand many of the initiatives we started at the Faber Center. It’s a natural extension of our efforts to provide world-class entrepreneurship education and support across the university’s entire community,” Brown says. 

Prior to joining the university’s faculty, Brown spent 20 years developing and leading technology companies in California’s Silicon Valley. There he founded and led Neoconix, a venture capital-funded company that created electrical connectors and Pandoodle, a digital media technology company that he still leads today.

He has a master’s degree in engineering and applied physics, an MBA and a doctoral degree in materials science and engineering, and he holds more than 35 patents in the areas of semiconductors, electronics and digital media technology.

Brown says it was the opportunity to work with students and shape an entrepreneurship curriculum that brought him to the university’s Moore School.

 “There is an energy and excitement that students bring to everything they do that is contagious, particularly to those that have been doing this for a long time and risk becoming complacent,” he says. “The students are constantly challenging my thinking and point of view. They keep the field fresh and keep me on my toes.”

In recent years, he says he has seen public understanding of entrepreneurism evolve.

“Entrepreneurism was not well understood by many folks in South Carolina and nationally, even as recently as 5 years ago. It was viewed as inherent talent that people either just had or didn’t have,” Brown says. “More people now realize that it’s a learned, professional skill set, just like law or engineering or nursing. Like any field, some people will have a stronger, inherent aptitude than others, but we can teach well-defined systems, processes, tools and best practices for entrepreneurship just like we can with any other applied field.”

What hasn’t changed over time, Brown says, are the skills that make a great entrepreneur: tenacity, focus, credibility and integrity, leadership, vision and passion.

The McNair Institute, centrally located in the provost’s office, is among a handful of centers launched by the McNairs at colleges and universities around the country. It reflects their deep commitment in support of higher education. They have funded scholarship programs at various institutions as well as medical research and faculty recruitment efforts in Texas. At Carolina, an initial $20 million gift in 1998 to create the McNair Scholars program has led to the recruitment of 350 of the nation’s best high school graduates to the university.

“We are extremely grateful to the McNairs for their continued support of the university and its students,” says Provost Joan Gabel. “The establishment of the McNair Institute will allow our students to explore their entrepreneurial spirit through innovative coursework, hands-on experience and a context of the greater society to which we expect them to contribute.“

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