Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Education

After years of planning, USF St. Petersburg opens new home for its business college

ST. PETERSBURG — Streaming into the sun-drenched atrium, business students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg are taking in the sights and smells of a brand new building.

Through unscuffed hallways, past a scrolling stock ticker, they trek to their classes, carrying maps to unfamiliar destinations: the Entrepreneurship Suite with plush, colorful chairs dotting the open space, or perhaps the Wealth Management Center with rows of computers primed for marketing research.

High-profile rankings and major donations have elevated the profile of the Kate Tiedemann College of Business in recent years, but its ambitions have been curtailed by a revolving door of business deans and a long stretch without a home base. As the university lobbied for state dollars, students were scattered among three buildings and faculty among four.

Now, nearly two years after breaking ground, the opening of Lynn Pippenger Hall marks the college's deepening roots in St. Petersburg, concentrating its big ambitions under one roof. A ribbon cutting is set for 11:30 a.m. today.

For university leaders, the new building brings a chance to more tightly knit the school into the fabric of the city, uniting students and faculty with community and business partners.

"The relevance we have to the community and the region here is going to be critical to us," said business dean Sridhar Sundaram, who joined the university this summer.

Peeking in on classrooms last week, watching students in Bulls green swarm the lobby, Sundaram couldn't contain his grin.

• • •

In June 2015, USFSP's chancellor called off the search for a new business dean. A memo went out to faculty and staff, saying the hunt would start from scratch.

Finding the perfect leader was critical in the eyes of regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska. She wanted someone who could work with faculty and the broader business community, enhancing the school's already-successful ventures, like its online MBA program, recently ranked 18th in the nation.

"If I hire well, life is a day at the beach," she said. "If I don't, it's hell."

The college was already pulling in sizeable investments. State dollars were helping shape its future home along Third Street S. Kate Tiedemann, a retired medical manufacturing entrepreneur, donated $10 million and her name to the college to support education and research, including a faculty endowment fund.

In early 2016, businesswoman Ellen Cotton donated $1 million to underwrite scholarships. A few months later, retired Raymond James Financial CFO Lynn Pippenger gave $5 million, also for scholarships. Her name now adorns the centerpiece building, one of few in the nation where both a business college and its building are named for women.

In Michigan, Sundaram was taking notice.

When he visited USFSP, he saw a waterfront university in an energized city poised for growth. He envisioned strong community relationships, like the ones he'd been building at Grand Valley State University's business school. He admired Wisniewska's leadership. And he saw potential.

• • •

With Pippenger Hall's debut and a much-needed residence hall in the works, Wisniewska's plan to turn USFSP into a distinctive four-year choice for students is gathering steam.

The contemporary, 68,000-square-foot business building cost about $30 million. Roughly $27 million came from the state.

Students can find academic advising and resume help on the first floor. Companies will be invited to hold interviews there.

Newly planted palms border the Collaboration Terrace, a sunny all-purpose space where Sundaram envisions entrepreneurial pitch competitions. A Consumer Insight Lab offers space to faculty, students and businesses for a variety of purposes, from focus groups to real-life sales training.

In a trading room, students can access market and company data for portfolio trading and class research. Reclaimed oak tables give trees that once stood on the land new life. A cafe will sell snacks in the atrium, where students hang out.

"Everyone has to go through there, and that's going to create a sense of community," Wisniewska said. "People will see each other, ask questions, exchange information. It'll be like an unending series of meetings."

From the upper floors, students and faculty can watch planes land and sailboats cruise on Tampa Bay. Across the street, construction continues on a Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital research building in the burgeoning Innovation District.

"If we just put our hand out the window, we can touch a partner," Wisniewska said.

To integrate with the community, Sundaram will coordinate intern fairs, donor dinners and a speaker series. He wants faculty members to serve on area boards and for businesses to work with professors and students.

A portrait of Tiedemann hangs in Sundaram's office, keeping him focused.

Raised in a one-schoolroom town in Germany, Tiedemann spoke no English and carried just $30 when she arrived in the U.S. at age 18. She stumbled into work as a maid in Manhattan, eventually landing a "girl Friday" job at a business that sold surgical instruments. Much later, after she had found success selling instruments for eye surgery, she still wondered where a formal education might have taken her.

"I told Kate, 'You're keeping an eye on me all the time,'" Sundaram said. "I can't goof around."

• • •

As Sundaram gave a tour of the building on its first day of classes last week, two wide-eyed students ambled through, gaping at the outdoor walkways and pristine classrooms.

One student in a USF hoodie gushed as he passed, "This is such a pretty building."

"Did you have classes here?" Sundaram asked.

"No," the student demurred. He just wanted a peek. "I'm not a business major."

"You are now!" the dean said with a laugh. The student introduced himself as Philo Rizkalla, a biomedical sciences major. The dean and chancellor shook his hand, expounding on the benefits of the business program.

"I'm going to be here all the time to study and stuff," Rizkalla promised. Then, convinced: "I'll definitely be taking a class here. Oh my god, this is beautiful."

Their sales pitch worked.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.

     
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