With a charismatic leader at the helm and significant community financial support, the Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship has big plans for the future.
Sandra Kauanui had already had two careers, one as a business owner and one in academia, when she moved with her husband to Southwest Florida in 2007. While not in full retirement mode, she didn’t plan on working too long when she took on a role launching an entrepreneurship program at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.
Going on 15 years later, Kauanui remains with FGCU — now a fixture at the school, with her name on a building to prove it: the Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship. After holding classes at an off-campus location for three years, the school, formerly the Institute for Entrepreneurship at FGCU, recently opened Lucas Hall, its new on-campus home. Lucas Hall also houses the school’s Small Business Development Center and FGCU’s Regional Economic Research Institute.
The 27,000-square-foot, three-story, state-of-the art complex is a testament to not only Kauanui’s longevity, but also her dream-big mentality, dogged determination and passion for teaching entrepreneurs. It’s a testament to her wallet too: Kauanui gave up a year’s salary —$200,000 — during the pandemic and donated it to the building fund.
“I thought this would be a fun thing to do in retirement,” says Kauanui, “but the vision to do something with purpose and with a growth mindset really went a long way from me. I love what I do.”
Known as Dr. K on campus, Kauanui beams with pride on a recent tour of the building — a $10.4 million project when factoring in construction cost, equipment, furniture and more. Lucas Hall includes the FineMark National Bank & Trust Incubator, backed by a $1 million donation from the Fort Myers-based $3 billion-asset bank. The incubator has shared workspaces, private conference rooms and a bank of computers, camera and audio recording equipment with access to product and app development software.
The school also has the Rist Family Foundation Maker Space, named for Brian Rist, who grew Fort Myers-based hurricane, storm and home protection business Storm Smart into a $73 million company over 25 years. Storm Smart reached record annual sales in 2020 before Rist sold a controlling interest in the business to a Maryland-based private equity firm in the spring — the ultimate entrepreneur success story. The Maker Space, with 3D printers, a laser cutter and virtual reality development kits, is designed to help students create products for their businesses.
Outside the walls, the Daveler & Kauanui School also represents a major step for FCGU, as it competes for high school students across Florida and nationwide. Student enrollment is up 32.16% over the past decade, student records show, to nearly 16,000 students. The school competes with the University of Florida and University of South Florida, among others, to land students.
Lisa Johnson, associate vice president for enrollment management at FGCU, says Lucas Hall is a key moment in a years-long effort to create a signature moment for the university’s students and faculty. The new space is also a significant tool for recruiting high school students, many of whom, says Johnson, want to be in business but are not sure where or what they specifically want to do. “This generation has an eight-second attention span. They are used to technology and having things move quickly,” she says. “This school fits perfectly with this generation of students.”
Students like Andrew Morris, a senior in the Daveler & Kauanui School. “To have access to a building like this means I have a space to work in, a space where I can collaborate with my professors, a space where I can collaborate with my peers,” Morris says in an FGCU blog post that celebrated the school’s August grand opening.
A tour around Lucas Hall on a recent Wednesday morning is a textbook college scene: students, a few in Tampa Bay Lighting jerseys, many in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, are spaced throughout the building. A few classes are in session — one is a lesson on the intricacies of creating a profit and loss sheet in Excel — while other students sit solo, AirPods in ears, hunched over laptops.
Kauanui mentions several times how “cool” the space is, designed to teach, collaborate and showcase success. One of the cooler features, she says, is the administrative offices are built on the ground floor with glass walls to see inside. Ivory tower this is not. “Normally administration is on the top floor of an academic building and you never see the kids,” Kauanui says. “Here we flip that around.”
In addition to Kauanui, the Daveler & Kauanui School is a testament to a group of well-heeled donors.
One of those is Frank Daveler. An entrepreneur and inventor, Daveler spent most of his life in Pennsylvania, where, with his wife Ellen, he launched and sold several businesses in aerospace, engineering and manufacturing. One of his most noted accomplishments was creating technology in airplanes that allows pilots to take flight at high speeds safer. In retirement, the Davelers donated widely to college-based entrepreneur programs. That includes $3 million in 2016 for the Frank and Ellen Daveler Entrepreneurship Program at the USF Center for Entrepreneurship housed in the Muma College of Business.
Kauanui met Frank Daveler several years ago, and the pair became fast friends, bonding over starting and growing businesses, among other topics. In summer 2020, Kauanui says Daveler, then 102, invited her over to his house in Naples to chat. Daveler had donated to the school for several years, some $2 million in total, going back to its early days.
Daveler told Kauanui he intended to pledge $4 million to get the school built. With one condition. “I went out to his house during COVID-19 with my mask on and everything,” Kauanui says, “and he said, ‘I want to be your partner in the school and I want my name to be on the building and I want your name to be on the building.”
‘The best part of the job is when I get to go to graduation and see the kids walk on the stage and know they have a chance to do something great in this world.’ Sandra Kauanui, Daveler & Kauanui School of Entrepreneurship at Florida Gulf Coast University
Since names on buildings at colleges are normally for the deceased, Kauanui had to get permission from the FGCU board and officials. With that granted, the Daveler & Kauanui School at Lucas Hall moved forward. (Daveler died in November.)
Another key supporter of the building is David Lucas. David and his wife Linda Lucas are two of the most-established FGCU supporters. That goes back to 1991, when they teed off the first golf fundraiser for the school — six years before it had a name or students. Lucas, who ran real estate development firm Bonita Bay Group, has pledged more than $8 million to FGCU since 1996, including a $4 million match grant for Lucas Hall. “Entrepreneurship is what drives this country,” Lucas told FCGU in a 2020 story. “It creates jobs. Small companies make a big difference.”
More happenings are on the horizon on at the Daveler & Kauanui School. The school, for one, recently launched a Master’s in Entrepreneurship program, focused on students creating or growing new ventures. Kauanui says she’s particularly excited to see how students in undergraduate and graduate programs use the 3D printers and other technology to create or advance the next big thing. The building, she says, “has made such a big difference for these kids. It’s so great to see all the energy here.”
“The best part of the job,” Kauanui adds, “is when I get to go to graduation and see the kids walk on the stage and know they have a chance to do something great in this world.”
School officials credit Kauanui, with a tireless work ethic to match her big vision, as the driving forced behind the school and its success. The daughter of an entrepreneurial couple that built a successful dry-cleaning business with 50 locations, she grew up in the 1960s in Norfolk, Virginia. Her dad put her to work early, and she was doing payroll for 500 employees by the time she was 13. Kauanui later founded and grew a financial planning business. After she sold that company she went back to school — she actually dropped out of college her first go-around — and earned several degrees. She got into academia, and prior to FGCU she was an associate professor at the College of Business at California State Polytechnic University for eight years, leaving as a Professor Emeritus.
Johnson, in enrollment management, says Kauanui is a model school administrator, for FGCU and beyond. “She’s one of the rare heads of a school in higher education who really knows the ins and outs of the entire program,” Johnson says. “She doesn’t stop. She never stops fundraising. She never stops finding mentors. She never stops finding leaders across Southwest Florida to be involved in the program.”