‘We’re going to produce a lot more startups’: Seattle University aims to boost entrepreneurship

Peter Rowan. (Photo courtesy of Rowan)

Peter Rowan wants Seattle University to be more plugged into the local startup ecosystem. 

He became the executive director of Albers Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center last year, using his first two semesters to identify specific growth opportunities to help the school produce more startups. Previously, he was the executive director at the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

He said one of his first priorities at Seattle University will be to expand the family business exchange program. Another opportunity will be to implement a competition to retain entrepreneurs during the summer months. And his overarching mission is to incorporate students from majors other than business into its entrepreneurship center. 

“When we expand these programs, we’re going to produce a lot more startups and serve them up to the Seattle community,” Rowan said. 

Rowan began his career in Seattle, serving as corporate vice president of new ventures at Coinstar. During his time at the company, he helped lead more than 20 acquisitions. His most notable came in 2005 with Redbox, which helped Coinstar grow from $150 million in revenue to nearly $1.5 billion by the time he left in 2010. 

We caught up with him to talk about his new role, how he plans to grow the entrepreneurial programs, and what this all means for the Seattle startup community. The conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.

GeekWire: Thanks for chatting with us, Peter. How did you discover the job at SU?

Rowan: I can’t remember exactly but I do remember telling my wife that there were only two jobs in Seattle that would ever make me move and give up the awesome job I had at the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship at Shidler College of Business. One is currently filled by an awesome person who I knew was not going anywhere and the other was running the IEC at Albers – and someone was going to get this job and then that would be it. No more jobs for me in Seattle.

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What specifically did you do at Coinstar? 

Rowan: I was the corporate vice president of new ventures at Coinstar, the parent company for Redbox. My job at Coinstar was to organize and implement our diversification and growth strategy. Among other things, I led our initial investments in the DVD kiosk space, including setting up the joint venture with McDonalds called Redbox, and then acquiring their half of Redbox from McDonalds a few years later. That was a very exciting project and a period of immense growth for us.

What are a few specific examples of when you helped a startup? 

Rowan: I have been working with startups since I started my first company in high school. I helped start many software companies, a sonar company, a few ed-tech companies, an eco-friendly packaging business, among others. I also have been investing in startups for a while with mixed results. I like working with businesses that I understand — most of them, I don’t — and with entrepreneurs that are not going to quit, ever, because it is going to be very difficult whatever it is. 

I love working with student entrepreneurs because they might not be successful their first try but you can help give them the tools to persevere and try again. Many of my students are on their second or third venture, and those are the ones that are going to make it.

“I want to bring in more engineering students, more students from the college of arts and sciences, and more students from the nursing school.”

What have you accomplished so far this year? 

Rowan: This has been a learning year for me. It hasn’t been a year of huge accomplishments. I’m learning how to be hands-on and figuring out where the holes are and where the growth opportunities are. I have figured out a couple of those growth opportunities.

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What are those growth opportunities? 

Rowan: There’s two areas that I’m excited to build out. Both relate directly to something that we did in Hawaii.

Seattle University has a very small family business program called the family business exchange. In Hawaii, the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship manages the family business center, and we have a program manager that manages it for them. It’s one of the most successful family business programs in the country. 

I’m excited to build that program out for Seattle University because there’s a rich history of family businesses and small and medium-sized entrepreneurs that are in the Seattle area. That’s one of the projects that I’m working on really hard and I’m quite excited about it. I think it’s a real differentiator for us. 

The next opportunity is that our summer quarter is a pretty dead quarter. And so there’s this gap where they have this momentum with their student entrepreneurship and then they have to give it up to go pursue the real world pressures. We’re going to launch some sort of virtual accelerator in the summer. Students wouldn’t have to give up their dream in order to go and get a summer job. They could, if they finish successfully, earn a stipend. Also, at the end, they could make a decision through the summer startup program, answering the question: “Should I really do this?”

What does this mean for the Seattle startup ecosystem? 

Rowan: We haven’t been as plugged in to the larger startup ecosystem in Seattle as we can be. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is that our entrepreneurship center has been historically very focused on the business school because it’s a private university that is quite a bit smaller than either the University of Hawaii or University of Washington.

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I have this overarching mission to expand our reach across the whole campus. I want to bring in more engineering students, more students from the college of arts and sciences, and more students from the nursing school. We had a nursing school team win the business plan competition last year. That was before my time but that would be an example of bringing in cross-functional teams. And when we expand these programs, we’re going to produce a lot more startups and serve them up to the Seattle community.

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