FGCU’s Runway Program celebrates $1 million milestone

5 – minute read

Some people know early in life that they’re not interested in a traditional 9-to-5 job.


“I knew for the longest time that I was pretty entrepreneurial. I didn’t want to work for someone my entire life and bank on some retirement fund to pay me out when I’m 70-something,” says Ryan Smith, a 2018 Florida Gulf Coast University graduate in management who runs his own business customizing vans.


FGCU has been celebrating and guiding entrepreneurial spirit since 2016 with its Runway Program, a student and alumni incubator where individuals can spend a semester developing business ideas, receiving feedback and learning about manufacturing, distribution, financials and more. Each semester culminates with the chance for participants to pitch their final business ideas for equity-free funding from donors.

Businesses from the program have seen relatively high success rates, according to Scott Kelly, program manager and double alum (’14, bioengineering; ’22, master of science in entrepreneurship).


“The average is that 10% of businesses will survive that startup phase,” Kelly reports. “We have between 50 to 80 businesses launch in the Runway Program every year, and of those, we have over a 70% survival rate over a five-year period.”


This spring, the Runway Program marked another impressive statistic: $1 million in awards given to FGCU students.


To celebrate, the program and the FGCU Alumni Association will host an alumni event called “Million Dollar Martini Night” from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. May 22 in Lucas Hall, home of the Daveler & Kauanui School for Entrepreneurship.

FGCU grad Ryan Smith
Ryan Smith runs his own business customizing vans. Photo: Fabiano Solano.
FGCU grad Ryan Smith

While other universities have incubator programs, the Runway Program is unique.


“FGCU’s fairly niche in that students own 100% of what they create,” Kelly says. “It’s a pretty cool opportunity for students, especially because they’re able to apply for competitions around the world.”


Another unique aspect of the Runway Program is that students can enter with or without a business idea — they can develop one after they enter the program.


That flexibility was key for Smith, who joined the program’s 2016 cohort with an idea but changed his mind three times before landing on the business he brought to the pitching stage.


“It gave me permission to pivot and not be married to one idea,” Smith says. “It’s OK if your first idea isn’t gold.”


Smith received funding for his first business, a bike repair service that comes right to the customer, and went through the program twice more with new ideas.

van interior
A look inside one of Kokomo Vans' conversions. Photo: Ryan Smith.

“I feel like a lot of times people will hide their ideas and work on them, but you don’t learn enough that way,” he says. “You have to go out into the real world and get some opinions, see what people are actually doing.”


Two years after Smith’s entry into the Runway Program, Jade Gibson joined with more than a idea; she had an already-established LLC for her music performance business.

FGCU grad Jade Gibson
Jade Gibson says the Runway Program helped her turn her burgeoning freelance music gigs into an actual company. Photo submitted.

“Around Christmas 2017, I told my dad I needed to start freelancing with my violin because I [wasn’t] making enough money with my retail job,” the 2019 entrepreneurship grad says. “He gifted me an LLC.” They named it Jade Strings, and by the time she joined the Runway Program, Gibson already had booked wedding performances.


“I had the developing idea — it just wasn’t a developed business,” she says. “Runway was what turned it into an actual company versus just me by myself.”


Now, seven years after its launch, Jade Strings has 15 musicians available for weddings and corporate events in Southwest Florida and four each in Miami and Tampa. Gibson has an office manager and assistant who helps her manage the administrative work. She has also launched a photo booth company, Jewel Booth, and is focused on the strategic vision of her business.

“Runway opened my eyes to the fact that I needed to stop working in it to work on it — and working on it meant hiring people.”


Gibson’s biggest piece of advice for people thinking about entrepreneurship is to be consistent.


“Work on it for just 15 minutes a day,” she says. “You’re giving yourself the self-discipline, and every single day you’ll be moving toward something.”

Both Gibson and Smith say their favorite part of entrepreneurship is the freedom it provides.


“I love the creative freedom. I also love the ability to travel the world with my job because I’m able to do my administrative work from wherever,” Gibson says.


Smith is now focusing on his latest venture, Kokomo Vans, which specializes in custom outfitting vans. He’s about to take his show on the road, selling van components online and creating related content while traveling across the country. He recently returned to the Runway Program as a judge.


“It was fun to see all these cool ideas that are still coming through the program,” he says. “It’s pretty inspiring.”


Like Kelly, Smith realizes entrepreneurship is not for everybody. “Only dive in if you really want to get to work and make things happen for yourself,” he says. “Don’t do it if you want an easy handout.”


Applications for the fall 2024 Runway Program are open and will close Aug. 23. Apply online.

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