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The art of operations

by Colleen Killen-Roberts

Divisional Vice President of Entrepreneurship

Preserving our founder’s intent

During our quarterly board meetings, one of the foundation’s trustees or management team members shares a remembrance of our founder Ed Lowe. The tributes have ranged from personal anecdotes for those who knew Mr. Lowe to readings of his poetry. I love these remembrances because it’s a way of preserving institutional knowledge and staying connected to our founder’s intent. Recently it was my turn, and I thought it would be interesting to look at our key programs and how they connect to Mr. Lowe:

Companies to Watch (CTW) — One of our earliest programs, CTW recognizes high-performing second-stage companies; it launched in Michigan and is now conducted in three states. CTW evolved from Mr. Lowe’s belief that smaller businesses weren’t given enough credit for their contributions to the economy and communities. The program’s structure also directly reflects one of his experiences: Nominated for a business award, Mr. Lowe went to the ceremony, only to learn he did not win. This irritated him as he considered it a waste of his time, which is a precious resource for entrepreneurs. In response, CTW honorees are announced several weeks prior to the gala, when they are formally presented with the award.

Leader retreats at Big Rock Valley — Big Rock Valley is our 2,000-acres headquarters property in southwest Michigan, and when Mr. Lowe and his wife, Darlene, were developing ideas for the foundation, they envisioned it as a place where entrepreneurs could gather for education, support and information. Today Big Rock Valley has become one of our biggest program assets. In fact, I call it “the mountain top for entrepreneurs,” and our chairman, Dan Wyant, refers to it as our “secret sauce.” During retreats we encourage our entrepreneurs to explore the property and use it for “pondering,” which was one of Mr. Lowe’s favorite activities.

PeerSpectives — Mr. Lowe believed that entrepreneurs learn best from each other, yet he didn’t have many opportunities to talk with other business owners. Our PeerSpectives roundtable protocol was developed for that very reason, to help second-stage business owners connect with and support each other.

System for Integrated Growth (SIG) — Launched in 2019, our SIG program is based on one of Mr. Lowe’s ideas: to provide entrepreneurs with expertise from outside sources. He called this “the cell system” but was unable to move forward with the concept because it was too much like consulting. SIG mirrors Mr. Lowe’s idea, but focuses on education and information rather than implementation, which enables us to execute it under our nonprofit foundation status.

American Academy of Entrepreneurs (AAE) — This mentoring program was inspired directly from Mr. Lowe’s writings and his belief in the power of mentorship; he even coined the name and logo. Launched in 2020, AAE pairs seasoned second-stage entrepreneurs with those who have more recently entered second stage. The goal is to share lessons learned, expand networks and accelerate growth. Today we now have more than 100 AAE participants from Michigan, Florida and Louisiana.

Entrepreneur-in-Residence — This retreat program began during pandemic when the buzz at Big Rock Valley came to a halt. But we realized our entrepreneurs were suffering, and they needed the very solace and peace that BRV offers. This VIP program gives participants access to the property along with reflective tools and resources to help them work “on” their businesses. It’s turned out to be a huge hit, and we now have a waiting list. Some of the participants have even repeated the program, like Rob Wise, CEO of ITinspired in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Wise says it gives him an opportunity to channel Mr. Lowe and step into a different level of inspiration.

Legacy Council — As Mr. Lowe was establishing the foundation’s framework, he struggled with how he wanted to be remembered and how the foundation would carry out his vision. I thought if he found this to be a difficult concept, with all of his resources and knowledge, then other entrepreneurs would as well. So we created Legacy Council for entrepreneurs who are transitioning out of their businesses or close to the exit point. The one-year program is geared to help them think about the next right answer for their business — and themselves.

Entrepreneur Emeritus — Mr. Lowe said that at a certain point in their evolution, entrepreneurs have a need — not a want — but a need to give back. Our Entrepreneur Emeritus initiative is a platform to do just that. Entrepreneurs who have benefited from climbing to the top of our program mountain become sherpas to assist others on their journey — creating programming “for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs.”

In a nutshell, we remember and honor Mr. Lowe each day as we execute our programs.