Celebrating the Smith School’s
influential entrepreneurship center
After schlepping off the campus a few times to buy printer cartridges, University
of Maryland juniors Sascha Maraj, Bill Ke and Jon Grunewald had an idea for a new
business: Collect empty printer ink cartridges from other students and refill and
The friends had a name for the business—“Inkup.” They had a target customer,
said Maraj—a student who “has a printer, cares about the environment and doesn’t
have a car.” What they didn’t have was startup money.
The trio got their chance to win some at the Oct. 29, 2010, Pitch Dingman event.
Instead of pitching to entrepreneurs-in-residence from the Smith School’s
Center for Entrepreneurship, they pitched their big idea to the University of Maryland’s
Board of Trustees and a panel of judges that included Kevin Plank ’96, founder and
CEO of Under Armour, and Jason Finger ’94, founder of SeamlessWeb. Both businesses
started out small and went on to earn revenues in the hundred millions.
Inkup’s founders would like to do the same. Starting your own business is a risky
proposition. Thousands of businesses are started each year, and about half of them
will fail. The National Federation of Independent Businesses estimates that over
the lifetime of a business, 39 percent are profitable, 30 percent break even and
30 percent lose money, with 1 percent falling in the “unable to determine” category.
|Creating Prosperity in Maryland
Dingman-incubated companies in operation
191 existing jobs created
More than $12 million in revenue generated in 2009
More than $22 million in funding raised for new ventures
But Inkup has an advantage—it’s working with the Dingman Center. Rudy Lamone
was dean of the Smith School in 1981 when he began pondering the idea of entrepreneurship
as a field of study.
“When I began to talk to faculty about this idea, they were ready to run me out,”
says Lamone. “They didn’t think entrepreneurship was a legitimate intellectual discipline.”
It took Lamone three years to drum up sufficient support for an entrepreneurship
program. The turning point was convincing two senior, well-respected faculty—Ken
G. Smith, former Dean’s Chaired Professor of Business Strategy, and Stephen J. Carroll,
professor emeritus of management and organization—to help with curriculum design.
“It was a big moment for me because I’d worked so hard, and these two wonderful
guys agreed to support it,” Lamone says.
But getting faculty on board was only part of the equation. Launching an entrepreneurship
center would take money, and lots of it. Lamone needed a partner—an angel investor,
if you will— who would be willing to take a chance on teaching people how to start
their own businesses. He found that partner in Michael Dingman, a self-made international
investor and businessman who at the time was CEO of Signal Corp. (later to become
Lamone and William “Brit” Kirwan approached Dingman with the idea, and he was
immediately captivated at the notion of an academic center that focused on entrepreneurship.
“It’s important for students to have the freedom of thinking that an entrepreneurial
spirit creates, toward the creation of a livelihood,” says Dingman. “It helps you
think out of the box, to actually apply the lessons you’ve been studying.”
The difference between teaching about venture creation and actually experiencing
it parallels the difference between reading about a foreign country and traveling
there. In the go-getting Lamone, Dingman recognized a fellow traveler on the roads
“Rudy and Brit Kirwan were very entrepreneurial themselves,” says Dingman. “At
the time that was pretty rare. I thought they were magnificent people. I wished
Rudy had been dean when I was at business school.”
Lamone promised Dingman that Maryland would start an entrepreneurship center
that would touch the lives of many students and would also provide an engine for
business development in the state of Maryland. Dingman signed a check, and in 1986
the center was born.
Jerry Feigen was the center’s first director, helping Lamone set up its initial
structure. The following year Charles Heller took the reins, and the Dingman Center
took off. Heller was a serial entrepreneur who came to the university to run a technology
commercialization program at what is now Mtech. He was getting ready to leave to
start another company when Lamone lured him away to the Dingman Center. Heller promised
to stay for a year, but wound up staying for 10.
“I got more satisfaction out of building the Dingman Center than I did out of
building my own companies,” said Heller.
Heller made good on Lamone’s promise to Dingman by providing services to entrepreneurs
throughout the mid-Atlantic region. He developed a mentor program with 200 mentors,
some of whom were active and others who interacted with the center on special issues.
He started the Baltimore-Washington Venture Group, which has morphed into the Capital
Access Network, one of the first venture programs in the region.
Heller also established student programs such as the Dingman Scholars, which
gave entrepreneurial MBA candidates a chance to explore and develop their skills
beyond the classroom.
The combination of services was especially important to Lamone. “Entrepreneurship
is a different animal,” he says. “You’re coaching and mentoring, not just teaching
from a podium, and you’re working with a group of students who really want to go
out and do something in the world, to make a difference. But I wanted to have a
program not just for the students, but for other entrepreneurs in the area. That’s
the mark of the Dingman Center: It wasn’t just another academic center, it was a
program for real live, honest-to-God entrepreneurs who were trying to break through
with a new idea or piece of technology.”
And just about every week the center was running workshops or programs all across
Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia, teaching entrepreneurs how to
get financing, how to market their products and how to manage growth.
“I wanted to give people the services that I wished I’d had when I was starting
out,” says Heller. “When I started my first company, this area was a black hole
for entrepreneurs. There were no role models, no educational programs.” When the
Dingman Center started it was, Lamone says, “the only gig in town.” No other Washington,
D.C., or Maryland school offered anything like it. The Dingman Center helped create
a culture of entrepreneurship within the Smith School, but also in the region.
When former dean Bill Mayer encouraged the center to be self-supporting, freeing
it from dependence on state funding, Heller solicited individual and corporate gifts
that put the center permanently in the black.
“We ran lean and mean, but we were financially independent,” says Heller. In
2000, Heller turned the Dingman
Center over to Don Spero. Heller remained on the board, first as chair and then
as a member, and continued to work with the center as an entrepreneur-in-residence.
Spero’s PhD was in physics, and his academic specialty was controlled fusion.
His postdoctoral research at the university led to the development of a high-intensity
lamp powered by microwaves, which he sold through Fusion Systems, a company Spero
started that brought in $170 million in annual revenue before it was acquired in
1996. At the Dingman Center, Spero was instrumental in creating the center’s New
Markets Growth Fund (NMGF), a $20 million venture capital fund created to invest
in early- and expansion-stage companies located in economically distressed sections
of Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia Investors in the NMGF include public
entities, private institution, and high net-worth individuals. $10 million were
raised from private donors, and $10 million were provided by the Small Business
Since 2004, Asher Epstein, MBA ’04 and former Dingman Scholar, has been at the
center’s helm, pushing the center in an increasingly global direction. Epstein sees
three main opportunities for the center in upcoming years: to partner with the Clark
School of Engineering to promote and develop an entrepreneurial mindset across the
entire campus; to aggressively pursue technology commercialization opportunities
on the campus; and to strengthen national and global opportunities for students.
Mark Walsh, chair of the Dingman Center’s Advisory Board, and John LaPides, immediate
past chair, are both passionate about the global programs offered to Maryland students
through the Dingman Center.
“When other universities hear about what we’re doing, they think it is the greatest
thing they’ve ever heard. They want to be a part of it,” says LaPides. “I think
one of the big pieces for the future will be our global impact. The center has a
lot of momentum on which to build for the global future. Entrepreneurs coming out
of business school today need to have that global experience; It’s crucial.”
The annual China Business Plan Competition is one of those unique global experiences.
Teams of three to five MBA students from the Smith School and the Guanghua School
of Management at Peking University in Beijing work together on a business idea—first
virtually, and then face-to-face in Beijing—before competing for $10,000 in prize
money. It’s a unique opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship and to practice
cross-cultural collaboration. The competition, now in its sixth year, serves as
the highlight of a weeklong business and cultural exploration of China for Smith
“Smith students who participate in the China Business Plan competition come away
from it having met and interacted in a very meaningful way with Chinese students
and Chinese entrepreneurs. Later in their careers when that becomes an important
skill, they will have it, and in a much more meaningful way than most universities
can provide,” says Walsh.
The center also offers a unique learning experience in cooperation with the Technion
in Israel, in which Smith MBA students partner with Technion MBA students on technology
“What really distinguishes our international programs is the classroom experience—having
our students learn side-by-side with students in China and Israel,” says Epstein.
The center recently won the top award for innovative teaching methods from the
Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers for its international programs. Not
every Smith student will start his or her own business, but every one of them should
have an entrepreneurial mindset, says Epstein: “Being entrepreneurial is about recognizing
and capitalizing on opportunities around you, and figuring out an effective strategy
Entrepreneurship is a core course for all MBA students and is woven into the
curriculum for undergraduates. The Dingman Center also provides entrepreneurship
classes for non-business students through its summer Jumpstart program and a new
I-Series general education course about entrepreneurship.
That knowledge will inspire a number of hopeful students to launch businesses
this year—like Inkup. Its founders won the Pitch Dingman competition, and so impressed
the audience of university trustees that they won the Audience Favorite award too.
That put $2,750 of cash in their hands. Maraj, Ke and Grunewald started refilling
ink cartridges for fellow Terps in November. So far profits are small, but they're
And who knows—maybe they’ll be one of the companies that go from “the back of
the napkin” to earning millions in revenue. It could happen. Either way, they’ve
joined the ranks of companies that exist because of the Dingman Center.
|Japanese entrepreneur Soji Kanazawa came to visit the center in 1990 and was
so impressed with what the center was doing that he donated $300,000 to finance
student exchange trips to Japan and around the world, and then went back and founded
an entrepreneurship school in Japan.
||Susan Simpson, MBA ’90, sportscaster former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann, Rudy
Lamone, and Mike Zhu '93, MBA '03 (MBA from Rutgers), worked in cooperation with
Project Hope to teach entrepreneurship skills to 300 inner-city children in Baltimore
in 1993. Zhu went on to a successful entrepreneurial career in China’s burgeoning
|Center benefactor Michael Dingman stands with the 1997 Dingman Scholars. Left
to right: first row—Philip Simon, MBA ’98, Michael Dingman, Nedra Adams, MBA ’97,
Richard Harris '74, MBA '77; second row—Brian Selander, MBA ’98, Scott Gilmore,
MBA ’97; top row—Chris Campbell, MBA ’07.
||The 1998 Women’s Economic Summit
brought together more than 200 women entrepreneurs from the region—just
one of the many workshops and conferences the Dingman Center offered for
|Dingman Center staff, circa 1999.
Bob Baum, PhD ’94, front left, was the first full-time faculty member at
the Smith School focused solely on entrepreneurship. A serial
entrepreneur with six companies under his belt, Baum lived on his boat
in Annapolis while pursuing his PhD. “It was better than Maryland
student housing,” Baum remembers.
||Don Spero, director of the Dingman
Center from 2000-2004, chats with former Maryland Senator Joe Tydings, a
faithful supporter; July 2002.