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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Adams Apprenticeship trains high-performance entrepreneurs

Frank Sutton meets with students like Adams Apprentice Sean Peterson once or twice a month.

Throughout his business career of buying and selling banks, opening convenience stores and starting an e-commerce company, Carolina alumnus Frank Sutton often relied on mentors he met along the way to help guide him to success.

“Back in the old days, we had excellent professors, but I didn’t feel like there was much interaction with executives and people who were actually running businesses,” said Sutton. “I was lucky along the way to have some good mentors and I think they are very, very important.”

Now, with nearly three decades of business experience, Sutton is sharing his insights with Carolina students. He is one of the more than 165 mentors providing guidance to the next generation of entrepreneurs through UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s flagship program the Adams Apprenticeship.

In its third year, the apprenticeship program provides mentorship for Carolina’s top entrepreneurial students by connecting them with the University’s vast network of entrepreneur-minded funders, founders and executives, to fast track the students’ careers.

The apprenticeship is open to undergraduate and graduate students in any major, and aims to train students for successful entrepreneurial careers, not just help them develop a current venture they’re working on.

“You could think of it like a Phi Beta Kappa of entrepreneurship that strategically connects our most serial entrepreneurial alumni with our most entrepreneurial students to advance their careers,” said Ted Zoller, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“We begin with very talented students. We end with high-performance entrepreneurs.”

Game-changing connections

The yearlong program combines the mentorship experience from advisers like Sutton with classroom learning, conferences, trips to entrepreneurship hubs and training sessions at Chapel Hill-based startup incubator Launch. Zoller’s Entrepreneur Lab course, which all students are required to take during their first semester as an apprentice, serves as the program’s anchor.

The class focuses on the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs and their leadership styles, Zoller said. Outside the classroom, program director Dina Rousett and her team host sessions on leadership, networking skills and goal setting to prepare the apprentices to begin connecting with advisers and mentors.

Through a kickoff gala and conference, trips to San Francisco and New York City and personal networking within the Adams Apprenticeship program, students then begin creating a board of advisers who will help develop the students. That board, Rousset said, is meant to assist the apprentices throughout their entire careers.

“We want to introduce them to lots of folks,” she said. “It’s game-changing that they’re able to be in the same room with these individuals. It’s really what makes the program special.”

For MBA student Taylor Meyer, the connections have been priceless. Meyer is an experienced entrepreneur who has already founded and sold a company in a seven-figure deal. “Access to the Adams network is pretty invaluable,” he said. “It gives you access to real world business people who are willing to help you out with whatever you’re working on. It’s something that I don’t think you can get anywhere else.”

Never turn a student down

Sutton, who has been a mentor for two years, said he typically meets with a student or two a month to share his experience. He may take them to coffee or lunch or have them tour his warehouse, or he may help them develop a business pitch. His policy, which he says is shared by all mentors, is to never turn down a student who calls.

“For me, it’s a great way to interact with the students and be a resource if they’ve got some specific areas that I might be able to help them with,” Sutton said. “It’s a network where, if I can’t help them, I feel a responsibility to try to get them two or three people who can help them.”

By learning from the mentors, Zoller said, the students will become better prepared for challenges they will likely face after college.

“In many cases, the advisers represent careers that the students would love to have in the future,” he said. “By being an understudy, by apprenticing under senior serial entrepreneurs, the junior entrepreneur really gets an advantage. They become streetwise because they see the experiences before experiencing them themselves by following the lessons of the people who preceded them.”

Only six months into the apprenticeship, rising Carolina senior Sophie Whelchel has already seen the value in the program.

“I can already tell that this network of mentors is going to serve me for the rest of my career,” she said. “I feel as though I have a better grasp on what paths others have taken and what options are in front of me. This creative approach to my career path is something that no textbook or class could show me.”