Reeves’ Mentoring Propels UA Teams to $800K in Prizes
Could the best coach at the University of Arkansas be tucked inside a smallish, cookie-cutter office at the Walton College of Business?
With apologies to supremely popular pigskin boss Bobby Petrino, the answer might be yes. At least that’s the idea one gets after talking not just to students who have benefited from professor Carol Reeves’ tutelage, but Little Rock’s Frank Fletcher, head of the conglomerate that bears his name.
“I hope she’ll get some more recognition because she’s a quiet person and doesn’t toot her own horn,” Fletcher said of Reeves. “The truth of it is, though, she’s a diamond for the university.
“She’s somebody they ought to build a statue of.”
Fletcher first met Reeves about 15 years ago, when his daughter asked for help with a class project. He and longtime friend and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones ultimately provided Reeves seed money for Students Acquiring Knowledge Through Enterprise.
Aside from occasional travel expenses, the student-run, nonprofit entity hasn’t needed another dime.
“As far as I know, it’s the only continuously operating student-run business in the country,” Reeves said.
That success pales in comparison, however, with the run Reeves-led student teams enjoyed at business-plan competitions throughout the spring semester. Three UA teams amassed more than $825,000 in cash and prizes while routinely besting competitors from the likes of Carnegie-Mellon, MIT and Harvard, and with far-flung names like The London School of Economics and Political Science and Indian Institutes of Technology.
“That’s what I wish people could see, that these aren’t minor accomplishments,” Reeves said. “These are major accomplishments.
“We’re beating the best in the world.”
Reeves grew up on a “very small farm” in Inman, Georgia, a speck of a town south of Atlanta. It turned out to be a fortuitous childhood for someone who wound up teaching the principles of entrepreneurship.
“In my opinion kids from a farm background have a big advantage in entrepreneurship because you just learn how to do things,” she said.
Still, Reeves initially chose a different path. She earned a degree in political science and international relations from Georgia Southern College in 1979, and a master’s degree in international relations from the University of South Carolina in 1982.
A limited job market and low salaries for teachers, however, prompted Reeves to fall back on her entrepreneurial spirit. In 1988, she left the University of Georgia with a doctorate in strategic management and entrepreneurship.
Reeves then went with her husband, Philip Zweig, to teach at the University of Miami (Fla.). But when the two began to raise a family, Fayetteville became a more appealing option and they moved in 1990.
Reeves said her first real brush with teaching entrepreneurship as she does today came in 1996, when S.A.K.E. was born. It wasn’t until 2002, though, that Reeves got her first taste of coaching for business-plan competitions.
That’s when she reluctantly agreed to meet with a student named Robin Prince. Prince was involved in an engineering project, but needed a business perspective.
Reeves eventually paired Prince with some S.A.K.E. students, and the team competed at the Governor’s Cup competition in Little Rock.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Reeves said with a laugh. “I wasn’t really a good instructor.”
A Defining Moment
Despite her self-deprecation, Reeves’ interest – and competitive zeal – had been piqued. In 2004, a team of students determined to compete at Rice University’s prestigious business-plan competition hooked Reeves for good.
Travis Ruff, John Rutledge, Levi Russ and Megan Crews had developed a plan for a wrench designed by Ruff’s father. They finished second behind a Carnegie Mellon team presenting a plan to use radio frequency identification technology to track inventory in hospitals.
“This is an embarrassing thing, but the students were the ones who convinced me rather than me convincing them,” Reeves said. “They showed me we really can be competitive nationally.”
Rutledge, now president and CEO of the Little Rock market for First Security Bank, said that’s typical of Reeves’ modesty.
“I think it was more that our experience was when the light came on,” Rutledge said.
Translation: Armed with evidence UA teams could compete on a national scale, Reeves and her students began to study the strengths of their plans and presentations, and what areas needed to be sharpened. Also born was the realization Reeves and her students needed to reach out to the university’s research communities.
“Whether it was medical research or poultry science or engineering, we knew there were ideas out there she could help through what she was doing at the business school,” Rutledge said. “She combined the two.”
Reeves’ efforts gained more momentum in 2005, when the UA appointed her to the Cecil & Gwendolyn Cupp Applied Professorship in Entrepreneurship. The goal of the endowment was to build a world-class entrepreneurship program, backed by a trust valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If those factors combined to prove UA teams could compete against the so-called heavyweights, 2009 and 2010 showed they could deliver knockouts. It started in 2009, when Jared Greer, a member of Tears for Life LLC, convinced Reeves to send his team to the Global Moot Corp Competition, routinely touted as the “Super Bowl of Investment Competitions.”
Tears for Life was a collaboration between researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and MBA students. Its product was a screening tool that uses proteins in women’s tears to detect breast cancer.
“I swear I almost laughed in his face,” Reeves said of Greer. “You have no idea the competition out there, because it’s common for the top teams to have M.D.s, Ph.D.s, third-year law students. It’s really astounding, the quality of these teams.”
Regardless, Tears for Life was named first runner-up. Greer and his wife, Sarah, have gone on to win a TCBY franchise through a nationwide competition, and plan to open a store in Northwest Arkansas.
“What Carol did really put us on the path we’re on as business owners and operators,” Jared Greer said. “There’s no way we’d be doing this without having met her.”
Others echo that praise. Misty Stevens is part of BiologicsMD, the UA team that recently became the only group ever to win the Rice and Moot Corp competitions in the same year. BiologicsMD is developing a prescription solution that reverses osteoporosis. The market for such drugs is estimated to be $2 billion in the U.S. and $10 billion worldwide.
“However much you put into it, she gives that much back,” Stevens said of Reeves’ coaching.
During the spring semester – the competition season – that means student e-mails trickle into Reeves’ in-box as early as 6:30 a.m.
“I cut off the computer at 10 o’clock at night, unless they have a deadline,” Reeves said. “There have been times where we’ve been shooting them back and forth at midnight.
“It’s pretty much all-consuming, not something I would advocate from a family perspective. I’m not a whole lot of fun to be around, I don’t think, at home.”
If that sounds like a coach immersed in the rigors of a season, Stevens said there are similarities. Stevens was part of Emerson’s 1994 state championship basketball team, and said her feelings for Reeves reminded her of ones she had for her hoops coaches.
“You want to make them proud … to say, ‘This is what your effort did for me,'” Stevens said.
Reeves also coached Silicon Solar Solutions LLC, another of the four finalists at Moot Corp. That marked just the third time two teams from the same school advanced to the finals.
“That would be like having two teams from the same school in the Final Four,” Reeves said with a grin.
She then continued the basketball analogy, and smiled again while remembering teams examining the contest brackets upon arrival at various competitions.
“You look at the brackets to see who you’re competing against and it used to be that people would be like, ‘It’s Arkansas. OK, good,'” Reeves said.
“Now it’s like, ‘Arkansas? Oh, no!'”