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Clair Dorsey, Interim Director of Old Dominion University Business Gateway in First Person

Updated: November 27, 2013 - 12:37 pm

Posted: November 27, 2013

Clair Dorsey is four months into her job at the Gateway. She succeeded Jerry Robertson, who had been with the university for more than 30 years. She is seeking to become the permanent director when the year-long interim term ends. For now she's looking to manage increasing use of the Gateway and position it for further growth.



It's all over the board. We have on-staff engineers that are part of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership. Their typical customer is a small manufacturer such as a supplier to Newport News Shipbuilding.

We have entrepreneurs looking for assistance in setting up businesses. We have a Veteran's Business Outreach Center that works with people leaving the military who decided that instead of going to work for a government contractor they want to start their own business. We have a Women's Business Center. We also have a program called Launch Hampton Roads, a partnership we have with Opportunity Inc. Its purpose is to help unemployed or underemployed people to start their own business.




The types of industries we work with, it's really across the board. We work with a lot of manufacturers and a lot of government contractors. And those are the more established companies: They're still small, but it's not a one- or two-person company. We have programs that are more entrepreneurial in focus where there's big diversity in the types of companies.

Sometimes we work with a government contractor for six months. Sometimes we have one meeting to help get them certified. It's hard to say what percentage are contractors. A wild guess would be 30 percent. With manufacturers, I'd say around 20 percent. A project with manufacturers is a three- to six-month project. Our engineers are on the plant floors of these companies. They are much bigger projects than some of the other programs, which offer business counseling, help write a business plan or assistance in a market survey, versus actually working side-by-side with businesses.




They have two main objectives. One is process improvement. Our engineers look at the plant and talk to management at all levels and ask, "What do you want it to look like in the future?" They have tools to help get them there. Innovation is the other area. Why that's so important in our region is we have so much dependence on the military and if companies are in that supply chain and the government business decreases, these businesses need to understand how their products may be tweaked or redesigned - or even come up with a new product - to diversify their business.





I'm one of the few people who didn't come to Hampton Roads because of the military. At the time, my husband worked for a pharmaceutical company and got promoted and came to this territory. I graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor's in chemistry. From there, I went straight to industry, worked for a company called YKK, the largest zipper manufacturer in the world. I started as an entry-level chemist but quickly moved my way up to the quality manager position.

I left to come here in 1995, and worked for a predecessor to the Gateway called the Technology Application Center, then part of the College of Engineering. I was the director for three years. I had small children and wanted to work part-time. I knew the College of Engineering dean and he found me a job in corporate relations. After five years I went back to industry and worked for a Hampton company, Teledyne Hastings Inc., where I was a sales engineer. After three years I went back to ODU, and I tell everybody the third time's a charm. When I returned in 2008, I assumed the position of director of continuing education. I'm still in that position.








Our engineers are working with a company called Float First. A new company has been created because of an idea the owners had. Their previous business was a service business - flotation therapy - and now they want to make their own product. We're literally side-by-side helping them design and build a prototype right now. They were buying the float pods and the owner said, "We have some improvements that can be made to this design," and "Why can't we build it ourselves?" That's what they're doing.






Our Women's Business Center is relatively new, but the people we're seeing coming through are indicative of the state statistic that says women-owned business is the fastest-growing business demographic. We hired the director, Erika Small-Sisco, in March 2013, and we've served 84 clients since its inception.

I have a lot experience with girls going into STEM and I've done research on my master's thesis that talks about self-confidence in girls being one of the biggest problems. It's also true of women wanting to start their own businesses. The support we give here can only increase that. I don't want to call myself a role model, but seeing other women in positions of authority and responsibility has to help.




There's a lot of federal funding to help specific companies, like manufacturing, that comes from the Department of Commerce. We also have funding from the departments of Labor, Defense and Transportation. We have two programs funded by the Small Business Administration. ODU provides money for overhead, for running the Business Gateway because not all of the salaries are funded 100 percent by the federal programs. Some of the federal funds are funneled through the state, which provides matching grants.

For our Women's Business Center, we are looking for corporate matching funds because it's required. For the manufacturing program, we're partially funded through the Department of Commerce. Only part of the salaries for the engineers are funded, so we charge [companies] to make up the difference. Our annual budget is about $4 million a year.




We have grown really fast. I think it's the understanding that small business means so much to the economy, so the federal government and state government are trying to spur that. You'd be amazed at how many people start a small business and have no idea what a business plan is. Now when you go to the bank for a loan, you learn quickly what a business plan is, because they're not going to talk to you without it. We can help.

My job in this interim period is to make sure everyone is doing their job as effectively as they can. After the interim position is over, we're looking at planning more economic development programs. I don't know what that looks like right now, but I know that my focus is on making the programs that we have solid so that at the end of this interim year, we'll be positioned to make the next step.nib