The Next Generation of Entrepreneurs


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By Tom Field, Ph.D.

The late Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead fame aptly described the current state of our economic condition when he opined that “somebody has got to do something and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.” The heart of the message is simply that rebuilding the economy will fall to the citizens, not to politicos, agencies or pundits. As director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), it is my deeply held belief that the momentum for an economic turnaround will be sourced from the heartland and that the resurgence for engaged citizenship, accountability and resourcefulness can be fueled by the relationships and capabilities of the land-grant university community.

The formation of the land-grant university system democratized access to higher educations and cemented a now 150-year-long commitment to applying the creative capacity of university scholars to the challenges confronting society. The mission of the land-grant university is to tackle critical questions facing business, communities and individuals with the intent to develop solutions. Through application of teaching, extension and research expertise, the land-grant university has been an engine of innovation and progress. However, mature institutions of higher learning with long-standing traditions face many of the same issues that restrain established organizations in the private sector; chiefly, the slow erosion of flexibility resulting from successive waves of established organizational charts, structures and protocols, reduced risk tolerance and a tendency to turn its focus inward.

Left unresolved, these habits may lead to mission atrophy. Fortunately, the leadership of the University of Nebraska in partnership with the private sector has embarked on a number of initiatives designed to reinvigorate the land mission to meet the needs of people and communities in the 21st century. Entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic development are central pillars of the modern land-grant university vision. While this article will focus on the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, a sample of other programs at UNL is also highlighted.

Symbolic of the potential power of partnerships, in 2010 the Paul and Virginia Engler Foundation made a significant investment to create the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program (EAEP) in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and coordinated by the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at UNL. Paul Engler’s passion for entrepreneurship and the future of Nebraska rural communities led to formation of the program. Some of the key elements of the EAEP are

  • Engler Scholarships (online application at with a Feb. 15, 2013, deadline)
  • Internships and Field Placements:
    • Engler Entrepreneurship Curriculum
    • International Experience
    • Engler Entrepreneur in Residence
    • Paul Engler Lectureship Series
    • Engler Entrepreneurship Club
    • Entrepreneurship and Business Competitions
    • Entrepreneurship Travel Courses
    • Agribusiness Entrepreneurship and Leadership: Solutions for the Future Learning Community in Burr Hall.
    • 12- or 18-credit minor in Agribusiness Entrepreneurship
    • A new joint minor in Leadership and Agribusiness Entrepreneurship

The Engler program exists to build entrepreneurial capacity, to encourage students to aspire to become employers and to build their communities through engaged citizenship. Our efforts in the EAEP are focused on creating an experience that adds value to students by assuring that they have had an invigorating engagement in the intersection of ideas, disciplines and opportunities related to the following five categories:

  1. Food and fiber supply chains and systems
  2. Technology and manufacturing focused on food and fiber systems—including energy
  3. Landscape and nature/rural based experiences
  4. Biosystems opportunities arising from breakthroughs in biochemistry, genetics and biology
  5. Media, communication and leadership systems related to rural life, agriculture and natural resources and economic/community development.

Successful entrepreneurs possess passion for their ideas, believe that the pursuit of their passion gives purpose to life, are willing to do the hard work required to prepare and execute an effective business plan and demonstrate persistence in the face of setbacks and obstacles. Our aim is to put Engler Entrepreneurs in the driver’s seat in an environment where both success and failure are celebrated and used as building blocks for future achievement. The Engler experience is not a good fit for all students; however, for those with an entrepreneurial spirit, a desire to work with ideas from diverse academic disciplines and the disposition to take on risk in the pursuit of their dreams, it provides an extraordinary opportunity. As we recruit potential students to the program, six questions help them to determine whether the Engler experience is a good choice:

  • Are you a possibility thinker who operates outside of the box?
  • Do you prefer the safety of the crosswalk or adventure of the intersection?
  • Are you willing to be accountable for writing your own story?
  • Do you value networks and systems?
  • Are you excited by the opportunity to create value in the marketplace?
  • Are you willing to put your name on the deed and to claim ownership?

The Engler program changes students by helping them to develop new perspective on challenges, opportunities, risk and what it takes to win, overcoming fears and doubts, expanding their vision for the future and facilitating the creation of a network that yields lifetime associates and business partners. While still in our infancy, the program is being built on the strength of partnerships both within and external to the university. These partnerships include significant interaction with entrepreneurs, resource providers and community leaders. As a result, our program is designed to be fluid, nimble and open to ideas, critique and opportunities.

Perhaps most exciting of all is that the Engler Program is being built at the University of Nebraska where entrepreneurial vision extends beyond the silos of departments and colleges. The land-grant university mission is alive and well at UNL, and as a result, opportunities for engagement with startups, gazelles* and mature businesses is available across categories of economic interest and the full spectrum of university expertise.

For more information about the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, contact Tom Field, Ph.D., at tfield2[at]unl[dot]edu and to learn more about the other extraordinary programs at UNL, visit the websites listed in the sidebar.


Rural Futures Institute

Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program – College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Jeffery S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management

Center for Entrepreneurship – College of Business Administration

Entrepreneurship Clinic – College of Law

Extension Engagement in support of Entrepreneurship

EntrepreneurShip Investigation (for youth)

Food Processing Center

Innovation Campus

* A “gazelle” company is a small business that grows quickly and rapidly, experiencing double-digit growth across several consecutive years and grows its payroll accordingly. Apple and Google are examples, though gazelles are not limited to the tech industry. —Ed.

A member of the Engler Program faculty and a UNL extension educator will present a session on creating a new business model during the 2013 Agri/Eco-Tourism Workshop Feb. 5-6 at the Sandhills Convention Center in North Platte. The Agri/Eco-Tourism Workshop, offered by the Nebraska Tourism Commission, is open to entrepreneurs interested in developing agritourism or ecotourism ventures, landowners looking for ways to diversify agricultural income and anyone interested in economic development. More information about the workshop, co-sponsored by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and Nebraska Game and Parks, can be found at

Immigration in Nebraska