By Thea Holtlund Jacobsen Meet Dean Gerhard Apfelthaler, a familiar face both at Hub101 and around the Cal Lutheran main campus. Despite being the founder of several companies, Apfelthaler is not your traditional career academic. While he started his career in college, he worked in a number of very different industries and roles. After his first job in academia, Apfelthaler switched gears and become a diplomat in Austria’s foreign commercial services, which brought him to the West Coast for a number of years.
“Then I went back to academia, which in itself was very non-traditional. I had a chance to become part of the founding team of a brand-new university in my home country, Austria,” Apfelthaler said.
Apfelthaler said he was literally employee number two, and acted more as an entrepreneur than an academic in that environment. However, when his old government head office called, it was too tempting to pass up on the opportunity of becoming the Commercial Attaché at the Austrian Embassy in Singapore.
“After that I joined another, also relatively young university in Austria to help build the business programs and ultimately, I moved back to the US and started at Cal Lutheran,” Apfelthaler said.
Apfelthaler has plenty of experience within entrepreneurship. His first entrepreneurial endeavor was a failed trading company that specialized in golf equipment. Later on, he got involved in global business development consulting, and that company still exists. Furthermore, Apfelthaler was part of the founding team of a pharmaceutical startup a couple of years ago.
“I’m still involved in another pharmaceutical startup that’s still early stage. I am also mentoring a couple of other startups,” Apfelthaler said.
Apfelthaler is involved with the Start-Up Kids Program - a non-profit focused on teaching entrepreneurship to young children through elementary school programs.
Apfelthaler’s journey to Cal Lutheran started when he built a friendship with a professor in Cal Lutheran’s School of Management about 20 years ago, when he was at an Austrian university. Over the years, the personal relationship grew into larger and deeper involvement that ended in Cal Lutheran offering him a full-time position. In 2013, Apfelthaler became the Dean of the School of Management, which was about the same time entrepreneurship became a focus area at Cal Lutheran.
“We had some courses back in 2013, but no real program, and certainly nothing like Hub101 and all the events such as the New Venture Competition, the Startup Weekends and the hackathons. So, in a way, I think it’s fair to say that it started with me,” Apfelthaler said. Apfelthaler is an important part of the Hub101 community, and loves it there. Formally Hub101 is part of the Center for Entrepreneurship, which is part of the School of Management, of which Apfelthaler is the Dean.
“But there’s also an emotional and a historic relationship,” Apfelthaler said. In the Spring of 2013, when he was already chosen as the next Dean for the school, Apfelthaler called a meeting of entrepreneurs, investors and other players in the local ecosystem and they went through a visioning exercise. The biggest need seemed to be a cool and yet functional space where the startup community could come together.
“Everyone thought that it would take us 5 to 10 years to have that space, but with the support of Cal Lutheran’s president, we got it done in just one year. In the world of universities that’s at the speed of light,” Apfelthaler said.
Apfelthaler said he loves the organic nature of Hub101, and that it is built on the principle of paying it forward. Even though he has some visions and plans for Hub101, but it is rapidly growing and acting in a very organic and natural way. He said that he appreciates how nobody claims to be the mastermind behind it, and everyone understands that giving is more important than taking.
In Apfelthaler’s opinion, entrepreneurship is not necessarily the creation of high-growth startups or the next future unicorn. He looks at entrepreneurship more as a skillset that helps people solve problems and getting things done.
“Whether you are a music major or a business major or a chemistry major, these are skills that everyone needs. Business and society thrive on creativity and innovation, and that is not limited to any kind of profession or education, so entrepreneurship is a skill and a mindset that everyone needs,” Apfelthaler said.
Based on this, Apfelthaler would highly recommend that students, especially the ones interested in potentially starting their own business, take the ENT101 course at Cal Lutheran. He believes it helps students understand the systematic process from idea to implementation. Furthermore, Apfelthaler encourages future entrepreneurs to simply immerse themselves at Hub101.
“One of the powerful aspects of Hub101 is the fact that there are so many helpful people around that it would be hard not to find anyone who has the right advice for students. It is very important, however, that they take the first step – share your visions, and never be embarrassed to ask for help,” Apfelthaler said.
The New Venture Fairs are hosted to give young entrepreneurs the possibility of testing out their business ideas in front of judges who are experienced within business and entrepreneurship.
As a mentor for the startup community, Apfelthaler believes one of the biggest obstacles for student entrepreneurs is to work up the courage to go for it. He believes here are so many incredibly gifted and creative people around who chose security over risk and never realize their full potential.
“To them, I would say, go for it. Give it a try, and hang in there. The journey may be painful and you may have to deal with rejection, but every day, and every attempt gets you a little closer to where you need to be. I don’t remember which athlete said that, but I love the quote ‘you’re going to miss 100 percent of the shots that you don’t take,’” Apfelthaler said. In terms of his favorite moment from Hub101, Apfelthaler remembers a story from about three years ago, when a solo entrepreneur by the name of Michael McCrary walked into Hub101. Apfelthaler said he worked on his business plan for a number of month, building relationships through the Hub101 network. After about a year, he pulled in a nice first funding round and started to build a team. He found his CTO through Hub101, and hired the first interns from Cal Lutheran. Today, McCrary’s business business is profitable and growing. He has moved out of Hub101, but stayed in the same building, and hired several Cal Lutheran graduates as full-time employees.
“He is giving back to Cal Lutheran and Hub101. That’s our proof of concept, and that’s what we want to see more of,” Apfelthaler said.
Apfelthaler believes it is hard to know where the future will take Hub101, because the space is so organic. Besides the community aspect of Hub101, he has always considered the space as a lab for Cal Lutheran students. He hopes that in the future, each and every student at Cal Lutheran finds their way to Hub101, and where they get the help they need to turn their passions into viable careers, business models and life styles.