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Years ago, Laura Dunham launched a theater company in her hometown of Richmond, Va. She was initially motivated by an interest in acting and drama, but then something changed.

“I discovered I was an entrepreneur,” she said. “And I was fascinated by how powerful the entrepreneurial process is for making things happen.”

Dunham has made a career for herself in teaching entrepreneurship, both in Virginia and since 2004 at the University of St. Thomas. This week she will be named associate dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at St. Thomas. In that role, she will lead an integrated team of faculty and staff to build the stature of the school and reach out to students from all corners of the university.

Entrepreneurs are not just those seeking financial backing to start new companies, Dunham said.

“Entrepreneurs bring a process, skills and a mind-set that’s valuable whether you employ them in a startup business, or for a large company to grow your business, or in a social enterprise that’s trying to change the world,” she said. “I see my role as engaging more students that way.”

Some of that work is already underway. Last spring, the university created a minor in entrepreneurship for non-business majors, and its business school and graduate programs have long offered classes that include the foundations of entrepreneurship, creativity and change, innovation and social ventures.

St. Thomas — where total enrollment is about 10,000, including nearly 6,100 undergraduates — was one of the first universities in the country in the 1980s to hire faculty solely to teach entrepreneurship. Its entrepreneurship department in the college of business has seven full-time tenured faculty members and many adjunct professors.

What’s new, Dunham said, is that the Schulze School will now become more integrated with various centers and organizations on campus that support entrepreneurship. That may involve connecting students who are trying out a new business idea with pro bono legal help within the school, or with a seed fund for innovations, or with alumni.

The boost in entrepreneurship is driven partly by student interest, Dunham said, including those who increasingly want to take creative problem solving skills and apply them to social problems like poverty alleviation or improving equal access to education or addressing problems of racial injustice.

Entrepreneurial education, she said, equips them to see the world differently, to notice problems that others have overlooked and to craft new solutions that will work.

Bob Kill, president and CEO of Enterprise Minnesota, likes the idea of students getting more hands-on experience in becoming entrepreneurs. Kill’s consulting firm is focused mainly on small and midsize manufacturing companies in Minnesota, and he said some firms need help.

“When we see companies that maybe stall out, it’s often because they don’t have someone driving more of an entrepreneurial process,” he said.

Start-up companies could often use the help as well, Kill said. Sometimes leaders emerge with solid ideas and lots of energy and enthusiasm but could use more entrepreneurial training to frame their business plans better and avoid pitfalls and delays.

“We also see companies where we have second- and third-generation young people taking over for their parents,” he said. “They may have lots of great ideas to take the business to a new level, but their energy might be ahead of their formal training.”

Kill said getting experience as well as classroom basics will build both the confidence and competence needed in today’s manufacturing sector.

He said St. Thomas has always had a strong reputation for connecting with the “non-Fortune 500” companies — second-tier firms in terms of their size — and ratcheting up entrepreneurship programs seems like a logical outgrowth of that.

To further spread entrepreneurship within the university, Dunham said officials recently created a “Makerspace” area where students can experiment with equipment such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines and more.

“We’re trying to create a space in the heart of the university that invites all students to explore their creativity essentially,” she said. “Although that’s not directly about entrepreneurship, it is about telling students that they’re more creative than they think, and they should come on in and have some fun.”

That sort of creative confidence is an important element for people who ultimately become entrepreneurs, she said.

The university also sponsors three competitive “Shark Tank”-like experiences for students at different levels to introduce new products and face questions from panels of judges. And it sponsors a number of events, lectures and activities for students to become involved in innovative solutions.

“Increasingly we’re seeing a world where employers are looking for these kinds of skills,” Dunham said. “So it’s really something that all of our students need to come out with.”

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388