Whether she’s teaching a business class or beside a circle of students inside Cottrell Hall’s Center of Entrepreneurship, there’s one thing you’ll notice about Kathy Elliott.
She’s always smiling.
HPU students notice, and they’re drawn to Elliott because of her easy-going demeanor. But there’s more to it than that. They come because she helps ease their anxiety in navigating what she describes as the “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
It’s the unknown of it all. But Elliott helps them know.
She has 30 years of experience working with entrepreneurs in Texas, South Carolina and North Carolina. Last year, she came to High Point University to teach business and run its Center for Entrepreneurship.
Two weeks ago, Elliott’s professional world came full circle.
Elliott and the school’s Entrepreneurship Club helped celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week with a series of events that drew attention to what makes HPU distinctive: its entrepreneurial spirit.
It’s woven into almost every aspect of the university, starting with President Dr. Nido Qubein and flowing like water through the ideas students have, the businesses they run and the dreams they see.
Elliott guides them and helps hone their skills by working with them, building them up, cheering them on and getting them ready.
She has done that for many. Clara Osmont is just one.
Osmont got invited to a competition in which she could win as much as $1,000 because she had turned an idea into an app she called “Tattle Tail.”
It’s a software application that can tell you when someone has taken a screen shot of your text message. She got the idea after a screen shot of a text message had created unnecessary drama in her roommate’s life.
Her friends like “Tattle Tail.” Elliott does, too. So, on March 31, Elliott drove Osmont to face a room full of judges 30 minutes north at UNC-Greensboro, a school Osmont had never visited.
As Elliott drove, Osmont practiced her presentation. She said it under her breath, working on where to pause and what words to emphasize when Elliott turned to her and said, “Oh, you’ll do great.”
Osmont was the only competitor from HPU, and she was set to compete against 29 other students from UNCG and Elon University. Without notes, she stepped in front of a panel of judges and spoke for two minutes.
Osmont came in first place. Her reward: a $1,000 scholarship prize.
“This was new to me and often daunting,” she says today. “I had never been to UNCG before, and I had to stand up in front of 20 investors who I had never met before, and Professor Elliott said, ‘I know these guys. You’ll do great.’ That gave me confidence.
“My friends would say, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea,’ but you expect your friends to say that. But Professor Elliott gave me confidence because she was truly interested in it. She knew what would work and what wouldn’t work, and that was huge.”
Less than a month later, Osmont pitched Tattle Tail once again. This time, she knew the terrain well. She competed in HPU’s fifth annual Business Plan Competition and came in third place. She was awarded $2,500.
Again, she attributes her success to Elliott.
“There are so many skeptical people in the world, and you can be the most skeptical person hearing that inner voice in your head,” Osmont says. “But not a negative thing comes out of her mouth. She points you in the right direction and tells you how to get it done.”
Elliott told Osmont what she tells all her students: Be brave. Take risks. Break the mold. It’s OK to fail.
“You have to be a good listener and hear what they’re saying and give them enough to lead them without giving them all the answers,” Elliott says. “It’s inside of us, this spirit, this knowledge. It simply has to be drawn out.
“And these students have that inside of them. Entrepreneurs hear this enough – ‘That just sounds crazy!’ They need someone to say, ‘That is so cool.’ And I like translating crazy into cool.”
For years, Elliott had become synonymous with entrepreneurism in Greensboro.
She started working for the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce in 1996 and rose to become vice president of entrepreneurship and small business.
She worked with the Greensboro Partnership, an economic development non-profit, to develop entrepreneurial businesses. Meanwhile, she served as board member and later board chair of Greensboro’s Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, a non-profit business incubator.
Then, after getting her master’s in entrepreneurship at Western Carolina University, she started teaching business classes at UNCG and Greensboro’s Bennett College.
Everything in her life began to hum. But she noticed what she had started and helmed in Greensboro began to run on its own, and as she had done her entire life, she began looking for her next professional adventure.
Enter Dr. Jim Wehrley, the dean of HPU’s Earl N. Phillips School of Business.
He had met her several years before at an entrepreneurship event in Greensboro. Immediately, he wanted Elliott on his team.
He saw Elliott as an expert in entrepreneurism, an essential part of HPU’s business school. But he also saw something even more key. It’s what Wehrley calls a “nurturing heart.”
“We live in a world of life-long learning, and we need to show our students that learning is enjoyable,” he says. “That is the important role we play, and when students see that passion in us, they see the importance of learning in their future.
“So, we are role models, and that is why Kathy is important,” he continues. “She is a nurturing person with a servant leadership mentality, and she’ll go that extra mile for students.
“She knows the right questions to ask. But she won’t beat them up with them. She’ll show them a way, and students love that.”
The Belk Entrepreneurship Center sits on the second floor of Cottrell Hall, and its glass walls give its large corner room a fishbowl view of HPU’s growing campus.
Students do come. In four years, the Entrepreneurship Club has grown from four to 70 members, and its officers have turned their Monday nights into a lively conversation of ideas.
Elliott is always there. Mostly, she listens. But on this particular Monday night, she talks. She gives them pointers on pitches they’re going to give the following week.
But they’ll stand in front of no ordinary audience. They’re going to pitch to Marc Randolph, the co-founder of Netflix.
So, their questions come in droves. Elliott has an answer for every one.
“Make it your own.”
“You can say what you want, but keep it relevant.”
“Don’t take your pitch down a rabbit trail. But it’s cool to be different.”
Elliott can empathize with the anxiousness she sees among students.
She grew up poor in Connecticut, the second of four girls, and she learned early how to scrap. She sold everything from candies for Campfire Girls to Christmas decorations in her 20s. She learned to love the art of the pitch.
She also learned the need to be positive. In her high school yearbook, beside a picture of her with her hair trailing way past her shoulders, is a sentence that can still describe her view of life.
“A pessimist sees only the dark side of the clouds, and mopes; a philosopher sees both sides, and shrugs; an optimistic doesn’t see the clouds at all – he’s walking on them.”
Elliott spent five years in the Navy, processing radio traffic, where she worked with huge computers. She paid for her undergrad education at Lamar University with the GI Bill®.
Now, at 59, she lives on eight acres 35 minutes northeast of High Point. She unwinds by cutting brush in her backyard for a bonfire she’ll share with her husband, her two grown children and three grandchildren.
At HPU, she has her own bonfire to tend. She stokes student enthusiasm by doling out her knowledge and wisdom from three decades of entrepreneurial experience.
Still, every semester she learns something new from her students. They are much different than the adult entrepreneurs she’s come to know.
“They are a lot more fearless, and they have a different kind of courage,” she says of HPU students. “They want to learn everything from everybody, and they want to learn it all, and that can be so exhausting – and so cool.
“Every time I turn around, there is a different kid working on a business to start, and they come to me with so many ideas, and it’s my responsibility to help them. Yes, it’s a lot of responsibility. But it’s so much fun.
“You get caught up in their energy.”
One by one, the students came. They stood in front of Netflix’s Marc Randolph and pitched their ideas about selling fashion, building an app, providing clean water to people in Haiti and so much more.
For two minutes, her students talked. For two minutes, Randolph listened and took notes. Afterward, he gave advice. After hearing nearly a dozen pitches, he handed out one more pearl of wisdom.
“You’ll never get rid of the butterflies,” he said. “But you can get them to fly in formation.”
Beside him on an orange stool sat Elliott. And yes, she was smiling.
Elliott often has parents ask, “Why study entrepreneurship?” For her, that’s not a hard question to answer. Today’s economy, she tells them, calls for creative thinkers unafraid to offer solutions and stand up and lead.
Now, she can add another character to that conversation: Marc Randolph.
She and Randolph speak a language her students understand.
“They’re getting it,” she says, “And that is a point of pride.”