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Pivotal Moments in USASBE’s History

 

Pat Dickson, USASBE Historian 2017

 

The first predecessor organization of USASBE was the National Council for Small Business Management Development (NCSBMD) in 1955. Its purpose was to provide an integrated gathering point for persons involved in helping small businesses evolve and develop in the United States. Wilfred White, Wendell Metcalf, and Grant Moon were among some of the original founders of the organization. The organization was founded almost simultaneously with the Small Business Administration of the U.S. federal government. Later, Canadian members were added to the rolls.

Annual program meetings were held continuously from the first year. Bids for the annual meeting were taken and were selected at academic institutions. These meetings were held on campuses until 1981-1982. The last meeting on a campus was held in 1981 at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Since that time, annual meetings have been held in hotels and conference centers nationally and internationally.

During the late 1970s, the Canadian members began to feel that the organization should be changed because the NCSBMD was not a national organization, but was indeed an international organization. Therefore, the name of the organization was changed to the International Council for Small Business (ICSB) in 1978-1979. The first affiliate of the ICSB was the Canadian affiliate in 1979.

In 1981, the U.S. affiliate was founded and was named the U.S. Affiliate of the ICSB; the name was shortly changed to the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE). The first president of the U.S. affiliate was Gerald Hills, who was a member of the faculty at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville). At the same time, Gerald Hills was also the President of the ICSB (the only person to hold both presidential positions simultaneously). Initially, the organizational structure was patterned after the structure of ICSB. Since this time, USASBE has created its own identity, structure, and membership offering.

            USASBE is entering its 37th year of existence.  During this time, it has been led by hundreds of volunteer board members and supported by thousands of committed entrepreneurship scholars and educators.  Through fat and lean years, through national and international crises, and through growth and decline in support for higher education, these boards and members have led an organization that has survived because it has embodied the phenomenon we all study—the entrepreneurial spirit.  It has survived and thrived because of the ability of the leadership and members to pivot at crucial times in the organization’s history.  The purpose of this story is not to tell the full history (see USASBE.org for complete history) of the organization but rather to focus on a few of the pivot points that have occurred in the more recent history of USASBE.  

            Our story and our first strategic pivot begins ten years ago.  After more than 17 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Joan Gillman serving as Executive Director, it became clear to UW-Madison and the USASBE Board that it was time for the organization to relocate.  Following a national call for host partners, Florida Atlantic University was chosen as the new home for USASBE and Roger Alderman came on board as the Executive Director in 2006. 

The organization was financially strong with a solid membership base but concerns about opportunities for future growth were emerging as the competitive strength of other organizations in the entrepreneurship research and education field was increasing.  In 2007, President Geralyn Franklin commissioned development of the 2020 Vision that sought to broaden the focus of USASBE to include a wider range of activities, individuals and organizations.  The organization moved into a period of strategic growth.  The professional staff of the organization was expanded and investments were made in growth opportunities.
           

The next strategic pivot was not long in coming, ushered in by the U.S. financial crisis of 2008.  The Florida Legislature slashed funding to higher education and USASBE found itself in need of a new home when Florida Atlantic had to cancel its agreement as the organizational host.  As has often been the case, when the organization was at its point of greatest need, leaders and members rallied to its aid. Incoming President Jeff Cornwall encouraged Belmont University to offer the organization space for home office operations.  Becky Gann was named Executive Director and USASBE set up shop in Nashville. 

Unfortunately, the organization’s hard times were not over.  For most of its existence, the organization was almost solely dependent upon the national conference for operational revenue.  In 2009, most universities began slashing travel funding and attendance at the annual conference in Anaheim decreased significantly resulting in large financial losses.  Moreover, conference attendance had been undergirded by a critical partnership with the Coleman Foundation for many years.  The Foundation provided significant operational funding as well as scholarships for first time attendees, with many individuals first introduced to the organization and the annual conference through Coleman’s program.  Coleman, as was true with many organizations at the time, had to reconsider its funding priorities and the scholarship program ended.

 

While financially it was a significant blow, there was a silver lining.  Behaving as true entrepreneurs, the leadership of USASBE began to refocus the organization on providing value to members beyond the annual conference.  Member benefits became the rallying cry and the organization pivoted into a period of strategic maintenance focusing on maintaining existing membership and improving the value derived from the organization.

 

            While the organization was successful in stemming the decline in membership and conference attendance, the financial stress on the organization continued to take a toll necessitating the next strategic pivot.  In 2012, with the 5-year commitment to host the organization by Belmont coming to an end, the Board initiated a national call for a

new host site.  The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, led by the efforts of Jeff Vanevenhoven and Denise Ehlen, emerged as a new strategic partner for the organization.  Patrick Snyder as Executive Director and Bonnie Nolan, Membership Marketing Specialist joined the organization in Whitewater in 2013.  In a continued effort to strengthen the financial foundation of the organization and increase conference attendance, the Board returned to the original conference model employed prior to 1982 by seeking a university partner to co-host each conference.  Texas Christian University, led by the efforts of board members Ray Smilor and Brad Hancock stepped forward as the first conference co-host for the conference held in Austin Texas.  Revenue generating activities became a central focus for the Board and supportive members as the organization entered a period of strategic survival.

 

            Our story of pivotal moments fast forwards to present day (2017-2018).   USASBE is on a solid financial and operational foundation built upon the strategic vision and sacrifices of leaders and members who have been a part of this organization for the past 36 years.  While we can hope the organization will not face the same kinds of financial crises that began in 2008, the organization today surely faces the most significant competition in its history.  Entrepreneurship as a field of inquiry and educational endeavor has proven to be no passing fad. Academic organizations devoted to entrepreneurship, such as the Academy of Management and the Babson College Research conference, did not dominate at the founding of USASBE. Today they do and USASBE has responded – not in a defensive but rather an offensive way. The challenge once again is to pivot and recreate an organization capable of growing and thriving. USASBE has entered into a period of strategic focus.

 

The question on everyone’s agenda today, from deans of business schools to faculties from all disciplines, from non-profit educational institutions to for-profit training organizations, from politicians to NGOs, unfortunately seems to be how do we benefit from the field. What is the impact of teaching and learning entrepreneurship? What are the best approaches to teaching and learning entrepreneurship? How does our research inform the classroom and/or co-curricular experience and programming? What is best practice in programming? These questions and others require a greater strategic focus.

 

During the 2016 strategic planning meeting led by President-Elect Heidi Neck, the board and other member-guests worked to reimagine USASBE as the only independent academic organization devoted to entrepreneurship education—a move necessitated by market changes and member needs.  The output of that meeting included a new mission and direction for the organization. The new mission was overwhelmingly approved by the membership in November 2016.  Today USASBE is an inclusive community advancing entrepreneurship education through bold teaching, scholarship, and practice.

 

USASBE’s history and the commitment of its leaders and members throughout the organization’s history, earns it the right to lead.    While the path to strategic focus will not be one without dangers, the one thing that the history of USASBE has taught is that the entrepreneurial leaders and members of USASBE will find a way.The 2018 conference in Los Angeles is the first annual conference operating under the new mission. With a refined focus on entrepreneurship education, USASBE can attract a more diverse membership and be the academic leader in entrepreneurship education. USASBE is prepared for its next chapter. Our entrepreneurial journey continues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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