Rebecca White was an early champion of entrepreneurship studies, which is now one of the fastest-growing majors on college campuses. White, 56, helped create the entrepreneurship center at Northern Kentucky University before coming to the University of Tampa in 2009. Since she became director of UT's Entrepreneurship Center, the number of students majoring in entrepreneurship has doubled. "We are building an entrepreneurial community," White said.
White, athletic and petite with short hair and a wide smile, embodies what makes successful entrepreneurs — tough, determined and passionate. She spoke of her path recently with Times staff writer Erin Sullivan.
Odds are she shouldn't be where she is.
She grew up in Peterstown, a dairy farming community of 653 in West Virginia. It had one stoplight, which White said has now been removed because people realized they didn't need it.
Both she and her brother earned their doctorates and pursued careers in academia. They were the first in their family with advanced degrees.
How did that happen? A lot of people from small, rural towns stay there — or they would move to bigger cities within West Virginia.
"It's interesting. My children have asked me, 'When did you decide you were going to leave?' I never thought I'd stay there …I think it was my parents, their influence. They encouraged both my brother and myself to know a bigger world than what we had there … I always wanted to explore. We were taught that education was the way out and, for me, it really was. It created opportunities for me."
White's father, who died of a heart attack at 59, was a manager at a utility company. Her mother was her inspiration, an entrepreneur who owned a flower shop and, in her 40s, got her bachelor's degree in art. She painted nude portraits and made her own yogurt and grew sprouts. She jogged before it was trendy. When drivers saw her mother running, they would stop and ask if she needed help.
"She is a fascinating, creative person who was always interested in a lot of different things," White said of her mother, who now lives in Sun City Center.
"That was a big influence for me."
White originally thought she would become an interior designer — so she could be creative but also own her own business — but the course she was taking at Concord University evaporated. She could go to another school or pick a different major. She stayed and studied mathematics. After graduation, she earned an MBA at Virginia Tech. She taught business courses and developed a passion for it. As she taught and worked toward earning a Ph.D, White married and had two children. Balancing all of it was difficult. It took her seven years to finish her doctorate.
"I got up every morning at 4:30 and worked on my dissertation because it was the only quiet time I had. I either had to stay up late or get up early and I learned that staying up late, I had no energy left to write. So I just got up every morning at 4:30. I worked from 4:30 until about 7, when the kids got up. And then I went on with my day and did what I had to do."
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That shows such perseverance. You could have just said, "You know what, I'm going to put the Ph.D on hold." How did you decide to keep going? Or, in your mind, was it never a choice?
"I think it's just part of who I am … There were times when I thought about giving up, obviously. But that kind of perseverance has served me well because that's what it takes if you want to succeed in most anything, especially for entrepreneurs."
She said the experience taught her to manage her time and to be organized to the point of near obsession. She learned to delegate. She learned that she did not have the time to be perfect. A "B" on an exam was okay. She just had to keep going.
She worried about spending enough time with her children.
"It was not easy … I worried as every mom does. I had some guilt … But I always made them a priority and I felt like I tried to give them the role model of someone who had a passion about something, and to show them it's okay to be a whole person beyond being a mom."
In 1994, then divorced, White accepted a position at Northern Kentucky University in the greater Cincinnati area. She and her two children moved there. White became director of the school's entrepreneurship center and focused on building it into a top-ranked program. She was not yet tenured.
"People may or may not know this, but it's considered a suicidal thing to not just focus on your research to get tenured. I was focusing on program development, which is something that's not recommended. I had a lot of people say, 'You really shouldn't do this.' But it was the right path for me."
White eventually earned tenure. She remarried and, in 2009, she and her husband, Giles Hertz, accepted positions at UT. Hertz is an assistant professor of business law and entrepreneurship. They live in Apollo Beach and often go sailing. They play the piano and enjoy cooking. White has run a marathon and does yoga.
She loves creating the type of courses she wishes she could have had when she was a young student, wanting to run her own business but not sure how. She loves mentoring these budding entrepreneurs, the fuel of the American dream.
"It' the best job in the world. I just can't imagine anything being better. I can't believe I get paid for this," she said.
"Don't tell my president that."
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.