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April 09, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Belmont University’s Cone Center supports all students, not just those studying entrepreneurship

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two articles spotlighting entrepreneurial programs at two private universities in Nashville. This and the second article were completed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that has drastically altered programs and classes at most Tennessee universities.)

“My job not only supports students who are studying entrepreneurship, but all Belmont University students,” explains Elizabeth Gortmaker, Director of the Thomas F. Cone Sr. Center for Entrepreneurship.

The outgoing and energetic alumna of Belmont – undergraduate degree in business and music and an MBA – assumed her current role in April 2015 after several years in the private sector working in new media and digital strategy. She adopted entrepreneurship at a young age, launching several businesses while in middle and high school.

Although she teaches one credit class each academic year, Gortmaker says, “Primarily my job is programmatic outside the classroom.” With 250 students either majoring or minoring in entrepreneurship and hundreds of others participating in various ways, she stays busy.

Belmont is well-known, not only in Music City but across the country for its entrepreneurial commitment that started in 2004 with the establishment of the Center for Entrepreneurship, renamed in September 2019 as the Cone Center, and the academic program that offers students opportunities to earn either major or minor in entrepreneurship.

Today, the university’s undergraduate program is recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the top 25 in the country and as a National Model Undergraduate Program by the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that the undergraduate program has grown from just two students when it was launched to now being the largest major in the Jack C. Massey College of Business.

Having heard so much about the university’s commitment to entrepreneurship, we sat down recently with Gortmaker to learn more about the overall effort. It was late December as she was preparing for the birth of a second child within a few weeks, finals were approaching, and students were waiting in line to talk to her.

“I get to be part of a lot of fun things,” she says with the vivaciousness that others say she brings to the program.

With the exception of two Entrepreneurs-in-Residence who have one-year appointments, a student assistant, and alumni who volunteer to serve as mentors, the bulk of the programming falls on Gortmaker. She oversees an accelerator program, two co-working spaces, an end-of-year “Entrepreneurship Village,” and a monthly speaker series.

This past year, Gortmaker launched what she plans to be an annual effort. It’s the “Belmont Entrepreneur Awards” that recognize alumni in 10 different categories who have started innovative, growing, and unique businesses. An extensive research effort begun five years ago produced a database of more than 500 businesses in 74 cities and five other countries started by Belmont alums.

Seventy-one alumni attended the awards ceremony in October. (Click here to read more about the event and see a list of the honorees.)

“With the ‘Belmont Entrepreneur Awards,’ we are thrilled to recognize the hard work you’ve put into making your dream a reality,” Gortmaker wrote in the forward to a book that commemorated the inaugural recipients. “Building a successful business is no small feat. Your drive and commitment have made you an innovative industry leader, created opportunities for others, and enhanced the world around you.”

In describing the other efforts of the Cone Center, Gortmaker says, “We cover everything from the big picture down to the nitty gritty.” They include:

  • Two accelerator programs – a pitch competition during Fall Semester and a business plan competition in Spring Semester;
  • An “Entrepreneurship Village” near the end of Spring Semester when students and alumni have the opportunity to showcase their new ventures;
  • Two separate co-working spaces, dubbed “The Hatchery,” that offer not only desks and other physical assets but also mentoring; and
  • Monthly workshops featuring professionals offering advice in their areas of expertise along with the annual “Moench Entrepreneurship Lecture Series” that brings nationally-known speakers like former Netflix Co-Founder Marc Randolph to campus.

“I love my job,” Gortmaker says, something that was clearly evident during our interview. “I love connecting people, I’m a cheerleader at heart.”

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