It’s one of those perfect winter days on campus, and Sandra Kauanui is walking across an open field. She doesn’t care that her heels are digging into the ground, making it difficult to walk. She’s determined to help a local news reporter understand where the Florida Gulf Coast University School of Entrepreneurship building will sit and why the program needs it in the first place.
Then a question arises: If the building is so important, what’s she doing to help make it a reality? Beyond founding and growing the program, Kauanui, who is the school’s director, is donating her entire salary for the year to the building fund.
It’s a massive sacrifice that conjures questions. The most important among them is “why would she do that?” The short answer: She’s an FGCU Champion, a tireless booster chosen to be one of the voices of an annual giving campaign concluding at the end of March. The long answer is a story that starts in 1960s Norfolk, Virginia.
Kauanui was born to an entrepreneurial couple. They built a successful dry-cleaning business with 50 locations. As their daughter, Kauanui was expected to work.
“I was doing accounting, finance and business from the time I was 11 or 12 years old,” Kauanui recalls. “I was responsible for the payroll of 500 employees at 13. I really never knew anything different. Our family conversations revolved around the business, and I didn’t think other people lived life differently. Everyone must have owned their own business.”
While she showed promise, her father made it clear that he didn’t think a woman could run his business alone. So, she went to college three states away. While her studies took her to a new place, Kauanui realized that she hated college.
“I felt alone. I didn’t like it. So, I dropped out, came home and started a business,” she said.
From day one, Kauanui worked with entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses. She focused on tax and financial issues. It was no small task for a 19-year-old college dropout.
As time passed, the young entrepreneur’s interests evolved.
“When computers came around, my team started handling accounting, balance sheets and strategic planning. Then we added financial planning, investments and pension planning. I was one of the first Certified Financial Planners in the country,” Kauanui said.
She grew that business – West Financial – tremendously. Her tactics included innovative approaches like a newspaper column, called “Dear Sandy,” that she paid for like an advertisement. It was an excellent marketing tool because readers could cut it out of the paper and bring it to her for an hour of free consulting. Later, she hosted a television show, “Your Financial Options,” where she interviewed money managers and other financially minded people. When she sold the business, she had 40 employees and a 12,000-square-foot building.
But along the way, something kept nagging at her.
“It bothered me that I didn’t have a degree,” Kauanui said. “I felt like, at some level, this was something I should have completed. I regretted dropping out of college.”
The business owner and mother of four turned disappointment into motivation. Before she sold her business, Kauanui earned three degrees – a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. Something she didn’t expect came along with her new credentials – a love of teaching and the desire to be a professor.
Her first academic appointment was as an associate professor in the Frostburg State University graduate program; then she became an associate professor at California State Polytechnic University. After eight years, she retired as professor emeritus and made her way to Southwest Florida. The goal: work a couple of years and retire again.
When she arrived at Florida Gulf Coast University, fate intervened. At the urging of Tim Cartwright, a successful entrepreneur from Naples and current chair of the FGCU Foundation board of directors, Kauanui started what would become the School of Entrepreneurship. She immediately thought about her former business.
“I loved that business,” Kauanui said. “I loved working with entrepreneurs. It’s not really any different than what I am doing today. I’m still helping entrepreneurs. It’s what I know. It’s what I care about.”
The entrepreneurship program started as a minor. After a couple of years, it grew to be one of the most successful minors on campus. Kauanui used the success as a springboard to create the FGCU Runway Program, a free business incubator for students. Participants identify and validate the existence of a problem or opportunity, and then develop solutions and a plan that they can test on real people. At the end of the 16-week program, students of all majors can pitch for equity-free seed funding to launch their businesses. Since its inception, the Runway Program has expanded to include veterans and FGCU alums.
Now, the School of Entrepreneurship is home to one of the fastest-growing majors on campus. Last fall, 520 students declared it as their major. Since 2018, majors have generated $8.1 million in revenue. In total, 407 businesses have launched from the program since it began. Beyond that, FGCU students have raised more than $3.07 million in funding for their businesses in that same amount of time. And, late last year, the university was named the top college or university in Florida and 30th in the country for undergraduate entrepreneurship studies, according to The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine.
“I’m drawn to the students who are struggling with college versus going out to do something on their own,” Kauanui said. “I wanted to create a world where they could do both. If I had something like the School of Entrepreneurship, I would not have made as many mistakes. Who knows what I could’ve done? I would have done twice as well.”
Kauanui is energized by this community. She says FGCU feels like a home, not an institution. But, that wouldn’t be possible without the students. That’s why she’s still here 12 1/2 years after she planned to retire.
“The students that we have at FGCU are dedicated and they appreciate an opportunity. They don’t feel entitled. The people of this region are not raising their children to be spoiled. It reminds me a lot of growing up in Norfolk. The kids worked hard. Even if you have money, you don’t take that for granted. When I came here, I felt like I was coming home,” she said.
After decades in business, Kauanui is proud of her success. Her father lived long enough to see her create and grow her business, earn her degrees and set her sights on higher education. She overcame chauvinism in her early career to become a role model to countless women. Now, she’s been dubbed an FGCU Champion, a proud advocate for the university. A mentor to students and alumni alike, and a dedicated educator.
“To be a champion for FGCU, you can give back in lots of ways,” Kauanui said. “I have a real hope that I can show every student a pathway to a successful life. This generation wants to make the world a better place, and the entrepreneurial mindset will help them do it.
“You do not have to start your own business to be an entrepreneur. You can make a change and impact the world in any organization, if you have the kind of mindset to do it. It’s the same with this FGCU Champions campaign. If they can give back and help students make a difference – that’s the entrepreneurial mindset at work.”
Later this year, Kauanui and the students and alumni from the School of Entrepreneurship will celebrate the groundbreaking of FGCU’s newest building – the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Positioned at the heart of campus, this three-floor, 26,906-square-foot structure will serve as the creative workspace for this burgeoning program. The core of the building will be a large, open-floor incubator where teams of students and mentors can interact while working on several projects simultaneously. There will also be a computer lab and “maker space,” event/collaborative spaces, conference rooms, classrooms, a media lab, and faculty and business offices.
ABOUT FGCU CHAMPIONS
They are the FGCU Champions — proud advocates for the university, mentors to students and alumni alike, and dedicated educators. They are tried-and-true Eagles. And they back up their loyalty to FGCU by committing their financial support as well as their passion. Follow their lead by becoming an FGCU Champion and be the difference that makes a difference. Over the next few weeks, read about other FGCU Champions at FGCU360 like Maria Roca, J. Webb Horton, Win Everham and Cesar Hernandez-Isidro.