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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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New leadership could bring key changes to entrepreneur icon Kauffman Foundation

As a new year brings new leadership at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the long-rumored internal struggle over whether the focus of the nation's largest and most influential resource for entrepreneurs should be far flung or local may soon play out.

 

Thomas A. McDonnell, longtime Kauffman Foundation board member and chair since 2006, assumed the role of president and CEO as of January 1, filling the position left vacant since exactly a year ago when Carl Schramm was forced out. McDonnell hasn't indicated yet whether or not he will guide a change of focus.

 

But given the pre-eminent role the Kansas City-based foundation has played in fostering entrepreneurism, the issue of whether Kauffman's focus should be more local than broad-based could have implications for angel-investor groups and entrepreneurs in every region of the country.

 

However, there are some longtime entrepreneur supporters and investors who suggest that the emergence of other foundationsinvesting in entrepreneurial activity and of serial entrepreneurs now actively impacting entrepreneurship mean Kauffman could refocus without negative impact.

 

Despite the substantial amount of time since the departure of Schramm, the architect of Kauffman's dramatically expanded presence in entrepreneurial activity, there's been little national visibility or blogger discussions about the struggle over Kauffman direction or of the real story of Schramm's departure. Nor has there been a lot of discussion about what might lie ahead for the $1.8 billion foundation.

 

During his 10 years as president, Schramm turned the foundation's focus dramatically toward national focus, then a global presence, becoming the largest and most influential resource available to foster technology innovation through entrepreneurial startups.

 

Schramm was asked to leave, though the official announcement was that he had decided to resign to return to academia. Both his departure, and the sudden availability of McDonnell for the top role, may yet provide fodder for discussion.

 

McDonnell's sudden decision in September to retire at 2012 year-end as CEO of publicly traded DST Systems, and the fact that the company's board virtually that same day put a new CEO in place, could provide a new batch of rumors surrounding Kauffman leadership.

 

One Kauffman change that's certain to occur is its involvement with venture-capital and private-equity investing, given its own dramatic report last spring that spelled out the sad experience the foundation has had in its 20 years of such investments. The in-depth report, titled "We have met the enemy...and he is us," amounted to an analytical revisitation what it describes as its "large (almost $250 million) and (largely) underperforming VC portfolio" and a promise to make dramatic changes in such investing.

 

Because of the clout Kauffman has with academia, the angel-investment community and others with financial roles in start-up companies and entrepreneurism, there's a perhaps not illogical reluctance on the part of many in the industry to speak out about the Foundation's apparent internal struggle.

 

But the fact Schramm's departure was the outgrowth of the conflict over Kauffman direction is pointed up by a couple of comments in e-mails to me for this piece.

 

As a friend close to Schramm said in an e-mail, "it was always a fight between Carl's vision of becoming a global leader in entrepreneurship and being a mainstay in Kansas City."

 

Added an angel-investment leader who declined to have his name tied to the comment: "I can tell you that the divergence on direction is based on the interpretation of the donor's (Mr. Kauffman's) intent. After all, it was his money. Far be it for us to determine what is the best use of his money."

 

"I do believe Carl went too far afield and walked away from the original donor intent, including spending vast sums of money outside the U.S.," said retired Kansas City business leader Ritchie Slaughter said in a telephone interview.

 

Slaughter had worked for Kauffman, the owner of the Kansas City Royals major league baseball team who created the foundation in the mid-1960s, before his death in 1993. Slaughter left the board in 2003, a year after Schramm's arrival.

 

"He was very willing to have people come here (to Kansas City) from around the world but did not want to spend money outside the United States," Slaughter said. "It is Mr. Kauffman's money and needs be spent the way he wanted."

 

"The new guy is likely to have community pressure to give more focus to and have more board members from Kansas City, but he's been chairman of the board for six years so I'd be surprised if he's backing away from national involvement," Slaughter said. "Kauffman specifically wanted a national footprint in entrepreneurship and a local footprint in youth development."

 

Among those who suggest a Kauffman refocus would likely not be detrimental to entrepreneurial activity at this point is San Diego angel-investor Michael Elconin, a long-time leader in the five-county Southern California Tech Coast Angels.

 

"Kaufmann was instrumental, to say the least, in the formation and growth of the Angel Capital Association (ACA), enabling the dissemination of best practices, and promoting efforts to bridge the gap between university research and startups," said Elconin, past chair of the San Diego TCA chapter. "I would say that in all three of these areas, the institutions and momentum Kaufmann created will, to Kaufmann's credit, allow them to continue without further Kaufmann support."

 

Janis Machala, one of the founders of the Seattle women's angel-investor group Seraph Capital and now dean of continuing education at Bellevue College north campus, agreed.

 

"Kauffman has done so much and was working in entrepreneurship when no one was focusing on that area," she said.

 

"Now there are many foundations investing in entrepreneurship and many successful serial entrepreneurs now actively impacting the fabric of entrepreneurship and all this activity and money means that Kauffman can refocus to their roots and not lose all that was done," Machala added.

 

Susan Preston, also a founder of the Seraph angel group who then became a Kauffman Entrepreneur-in-Residence and most recently has guided California's CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund, isn't quite as certain.

 

"We will feel an impact on programs if the Foundation focuses solely on Kansas City," Preston said. "But I have faith and belief that new leadership will recognize Kauffman's instrumental role in advancing entrepreneurship on a national basis, where the programs created and grants made in a number of areas, including for women eptrepreneurs, have helped change the landscape for the good."

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