$1 million gift to benefit Auburn University student entrepreneurs

Published: December 13, 2017
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Auburn University student entrepreneurs working to bring business ideas to life will soon receive a boost from a $1 million permanent endowment.

Benny M. LaRussa Jr., a 1982 graduate of Auburn's Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, and his wife, Lynn, recently created the LaRussa Catalyst Fund within the Harbert College. Their endowment will be matched as part of 1982 graduate Raymond Harbert's dollar-for-dollar "challenge match" initiative, increasing the total support to $2 million. As part of his $40 million commitment that resulted in the naming of the college in June 2013, Harbert offered to match endowment gifts up to $15 million.

The funding will support the Tiger Cage Accelerator and Incubator and the development of a summer accelerator program, which will help Auburn student entrepreneurs fine-tune their business concepts, perform customer discovery, validate business models and attract investors. Managed by the Harbert College's Lowder Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship and housed in the Auburn Research Park, the Tiger Cage Accelerator and Incubator provides office and co-working space for student-led companies. Teams will meet weekly to discuss progress and will receive coaching from industry partners on revenue growth, sales and marketing, accounting, taxes, intellectual property and funding. The program also will include weekly lectures, team pitches and mentorship.

"In the Harbert College of Business, we take pride in the practical yet innovative educational experience we offer to students," said Harbert College of Business Dean Bill Hardgrave. "The Tiger Cage Accelerator represents a prime example of how we are positioning our students for success while also stimulating economic development in East Alabama and the entire state. Students working in the accelerator will receive guidance from faculty experts and mentorship from successful entrepreneurs as they progress through the different stages of the entrepreneurship process. Once their ideas mature and their businesses take shape, we expect many of them to create employment opportunities and growth for Alabama communities."

Mr. LaRussa, who earned a finance degree from the Harbert College, is the founder and CEO of Sterling Capital Management, a multi-asset holding company. Sterling Capital Management's holdings include Fenwick Brands, a consumer packaged goods private equity firm, StoneRiver Company, a firm specializing in multi-family, office and industrial real estate acquisition and development, and American Pipe and Supply, a distributor and provider of pipes, valves and fittings. Mrs. LaRussa, a 1984 Vanderbilt University graduate, worked for SouthTrust Bank, now Wells Fargo, and retired after 21 years as a senior vice president of commercial real estate and corporate lending.

Mr. and Mrs. LaRussa are each active in a variety of philanthropic and community causes. Mr. LaRussa serves as chairman of the Joseph S. Bruno Charitable Foundation and assists a variety of nonprofit organizations, including the Comprehensive Diabetes Center at UAB, the Crippled Children's Foundation, the Salvation Army and the Bell Center, an early intervention center for children born with developmental delays. He also serves as vice chair of the Auburn University Foundation Board of Directors. Mrs. LaRussa serves on boards for the YWCA of Central Alabama, the Alabama Symphony Association and the McWane Science Center Endowment Board.

Mr. LaRussa, who began his career in the banking sector, said interest in entrepreneurship was influenced by his grandfather, Joseph S. Bruno, who transformed a small, family-owned grocery store into a publicly traded, multibillion dollar corporation, Birmingham-based Bruno's Supermarkets.

"Lynn and I see tremendous value in supporting the Harbert College and Auburn University entrepreneurs," said LaRussa. "Success in entrepreneurship begins with a sense of purpose and a clear vision. My grandfather took $600 in savings to start a grocery store in 1932 and, through hard work and servant leadership, turned it into one of the most respected grocery operations in the country. We expect this endowment to create similar possibilities for Auburn University students who aspire to develop new products or launch businesses."

The 2,800-square foot Tiger Cage Accelerator and Incubator celebrated its grand opening Oct. 6. The facility includes three offices, a conference room, a collaborative work area and a break area for students. As the program and its needs grow, the Tiger Cage Accelerator and Incubator will move to a larger space capable of accommodating more students and companies. LaKami Baker, managing director of the Lowder Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship and a professor in the Harbert College, said the LaRussas' investment will have a lasting impact.

"The LaRussas' generosity advances our efforts to establish the Harbert College and Auburn University as regional and national leaders in entrepreneurship," Baker said. "Our students have an abundance of ideas and the determination to see them through."

The university's efforts to nurture entrepreneurship include serving as a partner for the Auburn Regional Alabama Launchpad. The Harbert College of Business will also host the finals of the Tiger Cage student pitch competition on April 6, 2018, as part of the Auburn University Entrepreneurship Summit.

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Auburn University's Harbert College of Business provides its students with an innovative-yet-practical education focused on career readiness. The college's degree programs in accountancy, business analytics and supply chain management lead the nation. Its research centers in supply chain management and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology guide the Fortune 100. Harbert's pioneering online education programs offer value and flexibility. The college's nationally recognized faculty produce research that informs and responds to today's business trends. Learn more at the Harbert College of Business website.