“Launching our startup hasn’t required changing how the core of the university works, it isn’t competing with the core operation for resources, and most importantly it supports the core mission of the organization. Do you see similar opportunities where God has you?”
I drafted the below in September 2015 for my series in MinistryTech, but ended up not using it. I think it does provide a great introduction to what I’m doing at Oklahoma Christian and why.
One of my goals in this series has been to stretch your assumptions about “startups” to include new ventures started inside of churches and other Christian organizations. Eagle Works is an example to help make that more tangible.
God has blessed me with a long and successful career in technology industries. I graduated with an engineering degree, started work as a software developer, and moved into product development and corporate management. Along the way, I did a few startups and spent a couple of years consulting primarily with startups. As my most recent corporate stint felt like it was drawing to a close, I stopped to prayerfully consider what next. How could God use all the experience and knowledge He has given me to bless others and advance His Kingdom? As 1 Peter 4:10 commands us “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
As I reflected, I realized that the times in my career when I was either launching a startup or working closely with startups were the most fun, exciting, and challenging in my career. Although none of my startups made me financially wealthy, God provided for our needs and richly blessed me by stretching and growing me. I believe these seasons shaped me in ways that helped me be successful in my corporate jobs and in many other areas of my life.
I felt called to find a way to reinvest this experience and knowledge into young Christians, to help them have similar experiences and to be stretched and to grow into leaders that can impact the world for God’s glory in whatever field that God calls them to.
I started talking to lots of people to get their perspectives and to develop a plan for how this might tangibly take shape. I am grateful to the dozens of people willing to sit down with me to share their experiences and observations. One of the best conversations I had was not specific to young Christians, but rather to college students. Tom Boozer, director of the eScholars program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City really helped crystallize my own observations. Tom said “Russ, you and I both know that, when hiring people into corporate jobs, we want someone who can do the current job, but more than that, we want that star athlete who we know will excel no matter what situation we throw them into.”
Tom introduced me to a concept developed by Tina Seelig, the executive director of Stanford’s Technology Venture’s Program. She coined the term “T-shaped people” to describe “those with a depth of knowledge in at least one discipline and a breadth of knowledge about innovation and entrepreneurship that allows them to work effectively with professionals on other disciplines to bring their ideas to life.” I realized that my passion could be described as helping to create “Cross-shaped people” – like Tina’s T-shaped people, but also directing their work and lives to the glory of God.
Oklahoma Christian University
So, where’s the best place to find and help young Christians? How about a Christian university? I already had a relationship with Oklahoma Christian University, so I reached out to see how my passion might fit into their vision for the university.
As a liberal arts university, OC already had a deep appreciation for training students to be both deep in their discipline but also to have a breadth of knowledge across disciplines. My interest in extending that to innovation and entrepreneurship was a strong fit and one that paralleled other innovation efforts at the school.
So, in August of this year I moved my family to Oklahoma City and began work as the Entrepreneur in Residence for Oklahoma Christian University.
Even before I officially arrived on campus, the administration created Eagle Works, LLC as the legal entity to house the startup businesses to be birthed from my efforts. I’m using the name Eagle Ventures to represent the broader set of entrepreneurial activities God is using me to drive across the university. As with any Lean Startup, I have a collection of hypotheses about how Eagle Ventures will create value for and serve my target customers (the university, students, faculty, alumni, and the community). But my most important early work has been to get out of the building and start testing those hypotheses. Discussions with the target audiences have been helpful, but our most critical early efforts have been to launch a “minimal viable product” version of the value proposition.
The hypothesis behind the value proposition is that we can create value for all of the target audiences by helping students launch successful startups. The first week of classes, I presented to computer science and business classes on the opportunity to develop the business plan for a potential new business to commercialize software the university had developed for its spiritual life program. We have pulled together a team of 4 students focused on software development, server infrastructure, marketing, and finance who are digging into all aspects of what it would take to successfully launch a software business. In December, we will present the plan to the leadership of the university and alumni potential investors. Between now and then, I expect we will all learn a lot. Perhaps next year, if God chooses to bless our efforts, I’ll be able to profile this new software startup! [Which He did, and I did, as you’ll eventually see posted here.]
What are the lessons that you can already take from Eagle Works? I think there are four key factors at Oklahoma Christian that have led to our strong start. First, the university was willing to embrace a model that didn’t fit their normal academic structure and yet still fit with their mission of transforming lives for Christian faith, scholarship, and service. Second, the university works very well across traditional organizational boundaries (specifically I work very closely with the deans and faculty of multiple colleges). Third, as a relatively small university, the students similarly are not as siloed as at larger schools – business majors find it easy to interact with computer science majors. Fourth, the university is willing to make decisions much more rapidly than the traditional academic pace of decision making.
Launching our startup hasn’t required changing how the core of the university works, it isn’t competing with the core operation for resources, and most importantly it supports the core mission of the organization. Do you see similar opportunities where God has you?