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The Origin of Ice House Entrepreneurship - Part 2

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

Last time, we introduced Gary Schoeniger, founder of what is now the Ice House Entrepreneurship program in a company called the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative. He had started small in building a successful gutter cleaning business that evolved into a multi-million dollar construction management company. He also helped his near-drop-out son start a construction site cleaning business while still in high school. Jason went on to be graduated from high school and college and become a Marine seeing combat action. 

Two Start-ups Started Small 

These two start-ups, starting small without much money and without special business education were in extreme contrast with the way our society has portrayed entrepreneurship and the implied need of big money and special education for a start-up. 

In search of a better way to educate aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners, Schoeniger became involved with an initiative supported by Cisco Systems to conduct video interviews with entrepreneurs from all over the United States to try to figure out if there were common traits in their thinking that made them successful. Cisco had discovered that entrepreneurs can't consciously describe how they think, let alone write it down, but if you get them to tell their story about how they started, you can begin to see these common traits. 

Gary was in the process of traveling all over the United States, interviewing, on camera, all kinds of entrepreneurs that had become successful. Nearly all had started out with very little money and little formal business education. Many weren't even subject matter experts in the areas of business in which they found themselves. 

Schoeniger Interviews Taulbert 

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Gary had finished the planned interview by about lunch time with a flight that didn't leave until the next day. Asking the people he met for suggestions about who else he might try to interview while in Tulsa, someone suggested Clifton Taulbert. Taulbert had lived in Tulsa for several years and was involved and a co-founder of the company that marketed the original "Stairmaster" exercise machine. Clifton was available and, indeed, the interview took place that afternoon in Clifton's office on Lewis Avenue in Tulsa. 

Not Only Entrepreneur But Also International Speaker and Author 

Clifton's story was quite a find for Schoeniger. The "Stairmaster" piece was only a small part; he had been a shareholder in one of Tulsa's banks and had become, and still is, an international speaker and author, having been nominated for the Pulitzer for his "Last Train North." His first book "Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored" has been in print for thirty years after he struggled to find the first publisher who told him that a run of 5,000 copies would be enough for lifetime. The United States State Department asked for a copy of the book to have on Nelson Mandela's desk when he was finally released from prison. 

It was the story of Clifton's upbringing and his introduction to entrepreneurship (before we stole that term from the French) that really caught Schoeniger's attention. 

Taulbert's Upbringing Is the Real Story 

In the segregated South of the late 1950's, Clifton grew up on the Mississippi delta in the small town of Glen Allan. Life was difficult for all African Americans there. Nearly all teenaged and adult males worked in the cotton fields; females, domestic help in the white and Jewish homes. All were for meager wages. The one exception was Clifton's Uncle Cleve Mormon. He owned the only ice house in town--that was before wide-spread refrigeration--everyone bought ice. This most unlikely of entrepreneurs, Uncle Cleve had little money, little formal education and certainly no power or political clout. Yet, somehow he built his own business in this small town and everyone, no matter what ethnicity, bought ice from him. He asked Clifton to help him in his business a couple of high-school summers instead of working in the cotton fields. Today, Taulbert says that's where he really learned the lessons of entrepreneurship. 

Ice House Entrepreneurship Program Evolves 

Over the months after the interview the two, Schoeniger and Taulbert, had many conversations and co-authored a book "Who Owns the Ice House?" In it, each chapter is a piece of Clifton's story relating back to his upbringing and work with Uncle Cleve followed by commentary from Gary relating why that part of the story is relevant to today's entrepreneurial thinking. After that, the whole entrepreneurship education initiative was changed to revolve around the "Ice House" book and its eight life's lessons from an unlikely entrepreneur. 

Entrepreneurial Thinking is for Everyone 

Since then, we've learned that those life's lessons really are for everyone, not just those wanting to own businesses. The lessons are about problem solving, taking action, continual search for knowledge and persistence. That's why you'll see and hear me talking about the "Ice House" way so much and for so many people. It represents the idea of always learning new ways to use small experiments in the search of solutions to big problems. The results of each experiment either validate an assumption or point out the need to try something else. Entrepreneurial thinking is not just about starting a business. It's about becoming better at solving the problems we encounter in our personal, academic and career life situations. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks.  


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