April 09, 2024

A Twenty-Year Overnight Success

Beloit’s Center for Entrepreneurship (CELEB) has been in business for two decades, already forming a legacy of lasting lessons and career foundations in the heart of downtown Beloit.

When Brandon Strawn’10 arrived at Beloit, he had no idea what he wanted to do. “I loved that the college embraced that,” he says. In 2004, as the college was launching its Center for Entrepreneurship, known as CELEB, he took a class with the center’s founder, Professor Emeritus of Economics Jerry Gustafson’63.

“I was not especially interested in business or entrepreneurship, but I enjoyed the class so much. The combination of entrepreneurship and the liberal arts was an opportunity to do a little of everything,” Strawn said.

Gustafson recruited Strawn to set up a professional video editing suite. “I had to learn to use it and set it up,” he recalls. He also created CELEB’s first website, again learning as he went.

In those days, music, TV, and video production were popular. Strawn recalls seeing students mostly in the recording and broadcast studios on the main floor and a few upstairs in the business incubator, including Meghan Hoover’06, who started Authentic Travel magazine as a CELEB student.

Strawn was born in Beloit and remembers things were rough downtown when he was a kid in the ’80s and ’90s. CELEB, as an extension of the college in the community, was at the forefront of the downtown area’s revival. He describes the early 2000s as an exciting time to be at Beloit, and CELEB was a big part of the excitement.

After a hiatus, Strawn returned to Beloit in 2008 to find CELEB in full swing. “I took Dave Knutsen’s classes with Joe Davis’10 [play-by-play announcer for FOX and the Los Angeles Dodgers]. I worked closely with him on the TV broadcasting studio,” recalls Strawn. “Some buddies and I started a TV show. We were just having fun, and setting the table for the people who came after us.”

Studio Camera at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship
Working at a computer at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship

One of those students was Ellery Addington-White’15. Impressed by the small class sizes, the faculty, and the freedom to follow his interests, he transferred to Beloit from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and it was a good move for me, particularly because of CELEB,” he says. He took a music recording course with Professor Emeritus of Music Ian Nie, and Introduction to Entrepreneurship with the center’s current director, Brian Morello’85.

Addington-White liked the fact that CELEB was off campus and describes the entrepreneurial spirit there as one where everyone worked together, trying to help each other. The rugged nature of CELEB was part of its appeal. “It was an awesome place to hang out. It felt more like a coworking space than a classroom,” he says. While there, he started a band with some other students. “We played a few gigs, made a little money, did some recording. It was a lot of fun.”

While Addington-White enjoyed playing and recording music, he was drawn to entrepreneurship and computer science because of the flexibility. “I asked myself, what can I learn that’s applicable to all fields? I realized that entrepreneurship is a good complementary skill, that entrepreneurial thinking can be applied in any field.” He got his degree in computer science at Beloit and is now a software engineer in San Diego.

“The skills you learn at CELEB are a good glue for everything else,” he says. “You can get a degree in anything and still benefit from that base of entrepreneurial skills.”

The start-up

CELEB has been, as Morello likes to say, “a 20-year overnight success,” contributing in many ways to many students over the past two decades.

“There are entrepreneur centers all over now, but nothing bespoke like this place, off campus and in the community,” Morello says. “It’s hard to replicate what we have here.”

Director of CELEB Brian Morello'85, Professor Emeritus Jerry Gustafson'63, and Professor Emeritus Ian Nie Director of CELEB Brian Morello’85, Professor Emeritus Jerry Gustafson’63, and Professor Emeritus Ian Nie all played a part in CELEB's ongoing success story.

The program’s roots can be traced to the late 1970s and Gustafson’s quest to fund a faculty post in the economics department to support a new business administration major. He noticed universities were receiving funding for entrepreneurship programs and saw an opportunity. To make the pitch, he needed something going on in entrepreneurship, so he designed a course: Entrepreneurship and Liberal Education. First offered in 1984, this course marked the beginning of what Gustafson describes as “the semblance of an entrepreneurship program for which we might find an angel investor.”

Entrepreneurship involves the courage to innovate and take risks, and starting the program at Beloit was no exception, as the effort coincided with a period of financial difficulty for the college. But as far as Gustafson was concerned, he was risking nothing, which was an advantage. “This was a side gig, since I was teaching full-time,” he explains.

It was nonetheless an unusual move for a tenured economics professor teaching economic theory. His entrepreneurship course was among the first to be offered on the subject at a liberal arts college.

In 1986, he urged college President Roger Hull to seek funding from the Coleman Foundation, which then endowed a chair in entrepreneurship. Hull named Gustafson as the new chair. He began taking clinics at Babson College and meeting with the other Coleman chairs to learn as much as fast as he could. He taught his course, and after a couple of years, added a workshop to help students learn how to do, as well as to think.

The field of entrepreneurship, according to Gustafson, is half academic — history, psychology, economics — and half functional practicality. In the early years, the program was primarily academic, however, one obstacle was that not all Beloit faculty and administrators initially supported the teaching of entrepreneurship as they understood it.

“I kept a low profile,” Gustafson recalls. “I taught my courses and advised students.” He mentored a handful of student start-ups each year and took students to conferences. Once Beloit’s entrepreneurship program, then operating out of his office in Campbell Hall, was on firm footing, faculty support began to grow.

The second act

In 2000, Mike Hennessy, the Coleman Foundation’s president, visited Beloit and asked Gustafson: “What’s act two? What’s next?”

“I told him that these centers for entrepreneurship were blossoming in business and engineering schools, so why not at a liberal arts college?” Gustafson recalls. To take the program to the next level, Gustafson reached out to the late David Myers’49, an anthropology major and lifelong entrepreneur whose successful career included broadcasting and real estate investments.

“He became my business partner,” Gustafson says of Myers. “The focus was on the academic aspects of entrepreneurship, [but] there’s a lot of learning by doing that’s necessary — I’d learned that from students who started businesses.” They needed a facility where they could pursue their ideas. Myers, the Coleman Foundation, and eventually more than 200 of Gustafson’s former students would pitch in to help create that space.

Gustafson spent months considering options on campus and throughout the city before landing on the Hulbert and Houston buildings at 437 and 439 East Grand Ave. Both buildings, which originally housed retail on the ground floors, offices on the second floors, and walk-up apartments on the third floors, had fallen into disrepair.

With funding from the Coleman Foundation and Myers, the college acquired the buildings in 2001, then contracted with former college trustee and local entrepreneur Diane Hendricks’ construction company, Corporate Contractors Incorporated (CCI), to renovate the first and second floors.

The center opened in 2003 in the combined historic buildings, at the leading edge of the revitalization of downtown Beloit. The first couple of years, only the first two floors were in use, sparsely furnished with donated furniture and alumni support for operations, though Gustafson recalls how vibrant it was from the start.

The first student businesses included a food cart, a bicycle rental business, a travel magazine, a house-painting business, and a movie production company. Gallery ABBA, a student-run art gallery, opened shop under its first acting owner, Aaron Bauhs’05.

A Bronze Statue at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship
Audio Equipment at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship

Gustafson, who plays jazz saxophone and has always been interested in music, talked to Nie about a recording studio. Maple Tree Studio was born. “I realized that I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life,” says Nie, “from the time I hung out a shingle as a piano teacher.” Though semi-retired, Nie still teaches one class a year and is often at the studio, now run by Brandon Kipp’13, a former student and audio engineer. The studio has been a haven for student rappers, who are often there into the night.

Beloit TV, which had been on campus in the theatre rehearsal space, became a part of CELEB, and former instructor Dave Knutson’94 had the studio open day and night to provide students with broadcasting opportunities. “The energy was infectious,” Gustafson recalls. “Things were usually jumping. It was fun right off the bat.”

A new era

When it came time to find his replacement, Gustafson knew the kind of person he was looking for. “I’d always believed that it shouldn’t be an academic economist running this place, but someone who has done [entrepreneurship] and has the experience.” He found someone who fit the bill, and who was, not surprisingly, a former student who had been involved with CELEB from its inception.

After graduating from Beloit, Brian Morello continued to develop foundational skills at his family’s business, a wholesale beer distribution and logistics company. He went on to co-found and serve as a principal of City Brewery, which became the country’s largest contract brewing company.

Morello took the helm at CELEB in 2011. “One of the best things I did was to talk Brian into taking over for me when I retired,” Gustafson says.

Another grant from Myers allowed Gustafson to stick around until 2013 to ensure a smooth transition. Morello audited Gustafson’s course, and Gustafson showed Morello the academic ropes. Nie credits Morello with building on Gustafson’s fundraising for the second building renovation.

Working with a circuit board at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship
3D Printer at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship

Morello brought Susan Rowe, a jewelry artist and designer, on board as program coordinator in 2016. “Since 2011, it’s been all Brian,” says Gustafson, “raising the money, redoing the place, the podcast studio, the third floor, elevators, the Maker Lab, charming the community, saving the financial literacy program [with the help of Larry Hays’68], and best of all, making me comfortable by soliciting my advice, all with the assistance of Susan.”

Foosball at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship The building’s second renovation, in 2017, funded largely by alumni and also completed by CCI, expanded the space by opening the third floor, installing elevators, and adding unifying signage across the exterior.

The result: three floors and 18,000 square feet for student enterprises in music, art, digital media, prototyping, and traditional startups.

The street-level floor houses the original components: Gallery ABBA, Maple Tree Studio, the television studio, and the WISE Foundation, a philanthropic foundation inspired and supported by alumni and Tau Kappa Epsilon members from the classes of 1962 and 1963.

On CELEB’s second floor, a skylight provides a soft glow in what seems more like a coworking space than part of a college — a meeting space with a view of Grand Avenue, a conversation area with worn leather sofas, a vintage shuffleboard game, and colorful original art on the walls. The new podcast studio is nestled in the back corner of the floor, beyond the business incubator’s computer workstations.

Microphone at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship
Live on Air sign at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship

The third floor houses the Maker Lab, the latest addition to CELEB, with 3-D printers and other high-tech tools as well as analog equipment such as soldering irons, sewing machines, and button makers. A professional race car simulator, where students train for esport competitions with other schools, is also parked on the third floor. And there is, at last, a classroom. “The facility now is magnificent, beyond my wildest dreams,” says Gustafson.

The next 20 years

Morello envisions CELEB continuing its multifaceted approach to entrepreneurship education and support, offering interdisciplinary programs that blend entrepreneurship with disciplines such as technology, arts, social sciences, and environmental studies to provide a holistic approach to problem-solving and innovation.

He also sees opportunities in collaborating with the leaders of expanding degree programs in collaboration with the new schools — Business, Health Sciences, Media and the Arts, and Environment and Sustainability.

Maker Lab supervisor Fatumata Kaba'24 assisting India Clizer'24 and Frances Donis'24 with their artwork for a totebag project.

From the start, alumni have supported student ideas and ventures through mentorship, funding, and collaboration, and continuing those connections will be crucial.

“We’ve had a great start in that regard with our Executive-in-Residence program,” Morello says, referring to Beloit’s program bringing successful alumni back to campus to teach and mentor students.

Community engagement will remain an important part of CELEB: strengthening local connections, fostering partnerships, organizing events, and creating opportunities for students to interact with entrepreneurs, investors, and experts.

Continued facilities investment will be necessary, such as upgrading the Maker Lab and renovating Maple Tree Studio to accommodate the growing number of students interested in recording engineering and music technology. “The goal is to continue to cultivate this vibrant and inclusive entrepreneurial community where creativity, innovation, and problem-solving thrive and extend into the broader global landscape,” Morello says.

The bottom line

Gustafson doesn’t expect that every student who comes through the doors at CELEB will become an entrepreneur, but he does expect they will all benefit.

Faiq Ahmad'26 at the Racing Sim at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship

One example is Brandon Strawn, the student who worked in CELEB’s early video editing suite. He’d shifted to major in computer science. “I think Jerry was a little disappointed when I told him I wasn’t interested in starting a business.” After graduation, Strawn went on to do post-production work on the West Coast, and eventually enrolled in medical school. He returned to Beloit, where he now works as a neurologist, albeit one with an entrepreneurial mindset. “A few months ago, I met with Brian about an idea for a start-up,” Strawn says. “Jerry happened to walk in and asked to hear the pitch. It’s been cool to see it come full circle.”

Entrepreneurship runs in the family. Strawn is married to Laura Grube’08, associate professor of economics and business, who helped to create the School of Business, and with Morello co-advises Belmark Associates, a student-run market research group.

“You don’t have to start a business to benefit from this place; you learn things here that will help you have a fulfilling life,” says Gustafson, who is quick to credit his colleagues and students for CELEB’s success. “The dozen or so students who got involved year in and year out are really the ones who created this place. It just got better and better. I budgeted for student salaries, and they just threw themselves into it.”

Addington-White concurs. “[The faculty at CELEB] were big on guiding us to a bigger purpose — entrepreneurship was complementary. It was more about building a base of skills, the journey, the flexibility, and linking to the liberal arts, tying it back to social good.

“I felt, at Beloit, that I could do anything.”


In their own words

Koont Htar'17

Koont Htar’17

Founder and owner, The Koont Collection;
Project manager, Workday

Dublin, Ireland

“I have been fortunate to work on many exciting projects since graduating from Beloit, as a product manager in the tech industry working with designers, engineers, policy managers, and marketing managers, and as an entrepreneur, launching my own clothing line. The skills I learned at Beloit College — entrepreneurial vision, setting your own course and building a team to help you pursue your goals — have helped in every step of the journey.”

Matt Anderson'08 at CELEB, Beloit's Center for Entrepreneurship

Matt Anderson’08

Founder and owner, MillSounds Recording Studio

Mountain View, Arkansas

“I run MillSounds Recording Studio in the Ozark Mountains. CELEB offered me an environment to fail with minimal consequences. Jerry gave me a place to start building those [entrepreneurial] foundations. Ian saw the passion I had for music and helped build my confidence. CELEB gives you the tools and confidence to move past failure in a productive way and come out better than before.”

Rebecca Lammers'06

Rebecca Lammers’07

CEO & Co-Founder, Laika Network

London, England

“I moved to London, got a master’s in music business management, and started working in the music industry. In 2014, I started my own business helping musicians monetize their music on YouTube. My clients have included The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Phil Collins, Iron Maiden, BMG, Sony ATV, and others. My experience starting a record label at Beloit and what I learned in Jerry’s entrepreneurship workshop provided the foundation for my career.”

Delna Sepoy'09

Delna Sepoy’09

Co-founder and COO, Keyo

Chicago, Illinois

“The last 10 years, I’ve been working in partnership with two other Beloit grads on our privacy-based biometric ID tech company. My journey is not one of a conventional tech founder. With the foundational work at CELEB and Jerry’s guidance, I learned to look at obstacles as opportunities using a liberal arts mindset and an analytical approach.”


An inspiration

Cover for the Fearless Creative Leadership podcast by Charles Day'83 Charles Day’83 was a student advisee of Jerry Gustafson’s who predated CELEB. Day, who had a successful career in advertising, also built and sold a film editing company, developed a successful consulting career, and has been an adjunct professor at Columbia University, a coach at the Harvard Business School’s Executive Education program, and is the host of the acclaimed podcast, “Fearless Creative Leadership.”

“He’s a wonderful example of what I hoped CELEB would help to do for our students,” says Gustafson.

Listen to the episode of Day’s interview with Gustafson on his podcast, “Fearless.”


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