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Alumnus Mark Strome's $11M gift to ODU is not simple charity

Updated: April 4, 2014 - 4:50 pm

Posted: April 4, 2014

By Jared Council
jared.council@insidebiz.com

Mark Strome, a 1978 Old Dominion University graduate who recently donated $11 million to the school, barely made it into ODU.

Strome grew up on a farm in upstate New York and went on to found a multimillion dollar California investment management firm in 1992. ODU was his introduction to the world, he said.

"Somebody in the admissions office took a chance on me," he said in an interview after a luncheon in Norfolk last week. "There was this whole thing where I was not going to be accepted, then they changed their mind."

For that reason, he said, he had always wanted to give back to the school. But he's very skeptical about charity, telling ODU's alumni magazine Monarch recently that it "can create dependence, be disruptive to incentives and lead to disempowerment." So he and his wife, Tammy, decided to designate their ODU gift for nurturing entrepreneurship.

"If you teach somebody how to fish, they eat for life," Strome said last week. "If you give them a fish, they starve to death the next day. That's the concept embodied in it all."

Strome is chief investment officer at Strome Group and Strome Investment Management LP. The Pacific Palisades, Calif., resident, his wife and his son Jack were guests at an invitation-only luncheon April 1 at the Town Point Club, an event meant to honor the Stromes for the donation announced last August and to share updates related to the gift, the second-largest in ODU's history.

The school's largest gift was a $32 million donation in 2003 by the late Frank Batten Sr., the founder of Landmark's predecessor.

 

Officials said roughly 60 people attended the luncheon, including ODU board members and community leaders such as Norfolk City Manager Marcus Jones, Norfolk attorney Vince Mastracco and Landmark Media Enterprises CEO Frank Batten Jr. Landmark is the parent company of Pilot Media Cos., which includes Inside Business.

The gift will establish an entrepreneurial curriculum at the school, aspects of which will be evident in all six colleges there. It will also create an entrepreneurial center and a number of co-curricular programs such as lectures, competitions and mentorships.

The idea, Strome and others involved in the initiative have said, is there are potential entrepreneurs in every discipline, not just the business school. In a speech at the luncheon, ODU President John Broderick said the effort represents a different, perhaps better, kind of economic development.

"Successful and sustainable economic development is not solely recruiting large, established companies to our region," he said.

"Therefore, we must equip entrepreneurs with the right infrastructure and support so that businesses can be created. Hampton Roads companies - or should I now say Coastal Virginia companies - such as ADS, Portfolio Recovery Associates, Dollar Tree, Harbor Group International, Papco, Doma Technologies and Landmark are great examples."

The official name of the entrepreneurial center had not been finalized by press time, but officials said it will be named after the Strome family.

Jim Lant, a 27-year veteran in private-sector enterprises who specializes in entrepreneur "launch camps" and teaches management in the business college, will serve as the interim director, officials said.

To help craft an entrepreneurial culture across the university, the school established the Entsminger Fellows program. Under it, ODU officials said, one faculty member from each ODU college will attend the Price-Babson Symposium for Entrepreneurship Educators in Massachusetts later this year. They'll then be tasked with, among other things, creating an entrepreneurship course in their respective colleges.

The program is funded for at least four years, spokesman Brendan O'Hallarn said, with a new round of fellows taking seats each year. The program was made possible with a $100,000 gift from 1974 alumnus and retired Mobil executive Lee Entsminger.

The Strome Family Foundation pledged a $10 million gift last year, but recently added $1 million, ODU officials said. Since Broderick made the announcement last year, the university, led by Vice President for University Advancement Alonzo Brandon, has used the Strome gift to leverage related gifts. So far, additional benefactors include:

* Nancy Grden, general manager of Genomind and founder of Avenir LLC, will donate $25,000 to support student entrepreneurs in their pre-venture-capital phase with commercialization plans.

* Alumnus Drew Ungvarsky, founder of multimedia design studio Grow, has committed $10,000 annually to support student entrepreneurial clubs.

* Alumna Marsha Hudgins, CEO of Hudgins Contracting Co., has committed $50,000 for a women entrepreneur speakers series.

* Board of visitors member and ODU graduate Luke Hillier and his foundation, Hillier Ignite, have committed $90,000 to support a business plan competition over the next three years.

* Alumni Scott and Jeanine Trainum have pledged $250,000 to sponsor an entrepreneurial lecture series featuring nationally recognized speakers. Scott Trainum is CEO of ICG Communications Inc.

Brandon said once the Strome investment was made, staff in his office talked with people who support the effort.

"Then they asked us how they can fit in," Brandon said after last week's event.

 

In an impromptu speech at the luncheon, Strome said the region needs to be realistic about what it can expect with entrepreneurism locally. Hampton Roads may not be home to the next big tech startup that's sold for $30 billion - though it's possible, he said - but may yield entrepreneurs who reinvent a business process for something that already exists.

"When you think about companies like Starbucks, you know, the guy created this great company out of something that used to be given away for free," he said.

"Cirque du Soleil is another one. You have this circus company where somebody decided to do it differently. I can see those sorts of things happening."