BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – When Vernon Clapp returns to Indiana University Bloomington to serve as a judge at an annual entrepreneur pitch competition at the Kelley School of Business, he says he doesn’t quite see a younger version of himself, but perhaps he should.
After graduating from IU in 1969 with a business degree, Clapp accepted a position with Western Electric in Greensboro, N.C., joining a team that was developing an anti-ballistic missile system. While the work was important, he longed to go into business for himself.
“I basically, very fast, got tired of corporate work and sought out business ideas,” said Clapp, who still lives in North Carolina. “I jumped when I discovered one idea that I thought would work.”
After a few side ventures, Clapp’s career in real estate began 10 years later and grew into a business developing subdivisions that he continues to lead. He also pursues other business opportunities today through his company, Clapp Investment Ltd.
“These kids are much further along with their business plans than I was when I began,” he said of the Kelley students who competed in the Clapp IDEA Competition last month.
In 2013, Clapp gave $2 million to the Kelley School to establish the annual competition, where budding student entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to judges. This year, Civic Champs, a company co-founded by Kelley MBA student Ryan Underdahl, won the $20,000 first place prize and will have use of the school’s Hoosier Hatchery incubator. Clapp and Underdahl are pictured above.
This year, the judging was intense. “There were three competitors at the finals and normally the judges can make a decision in 15 to 30 minutes, but we spent about an hour trying to decide, that’s how tough the field was,” Clapp said.
“It gives students and future entrepreneurs an opportunity to think and plan and grow a business idea,” he added. “It’s just a super opportunity for young people to get their feet wet as it were.”
A lifelong entrepreneur, Clapp sold Wolverine Salve as a schoolboy and recruited friends to work for him. He also had a newspaper route. After graduating from high school in 1960, he completed a machinist apprenticeship at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Ind., while also selling insurance for Lincoln National Life. While at IU, he sold Filter Queen vacuum cleaners between classes.
“I am deeply grateful for Vernon Clapp’s generosity to IU in providing a lasting endowment to secure funding for the Clapp IDEA Competition. More importantly, his actual involvement every year as one of the judges is an important message to the young entrepreneurs in the competition,” said Donald F. Kuratko, executive director of the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
“They are able to see his devotion to the entrepreneurial spirit, which motivates them to act on their dreams. After all, it will be their dreams that will shape the future of our world,” Kuratko added.
In addition to the Clapp IDEA Competition, he supports similar initiatives elsewhere. In 2016, began supporting a student entrepreneurial contest at Alamance Community College in Graham, N.C., as well as a program for local school children. “I’m doing it at all levels,” he said.
At this year’s awards ceremony, Clapp was obviously moved. When asked why it’s so important for him to support the next generation of entrepreneurs, he said he cares deeply about helping young peoples’ ideas to “bubble up to the top.”
“Yes, I am emotional about it,” he said. “I really want to see those kids succeed and come back when I’m gone and take my place … I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to do this and hope to do it for a long time.”
Clapp said he is impressed with how his alma mater prepares students who are serious about entrepreneurship. He lives within North Carolina’s “Research Triangle,” but said he did not hesitate to leave a “real impact” on Kelley’s program.
“I graduated from there, so you always go back to your roots,” he said. “I’m right in the middle of Duke, UNC, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Elon. Yes, I’ve got a lot of opportunities around here, but I have a lot of good memories from IU. It helped me become the person I am today … It’s my way of giving back.”
He’s hopeful about this year’s winner, in part because of something Underdahl did after winning, something he thinks set an example for other young entrepreneurs. “He thanked me for the opportunity and he also asked me if it would be OK if he gave me progress reports on Civic Champs, which really pleased me,” Clapp said. “That’s the kind of person I’m looking for.”