- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

Charles O. Heller stepped down as director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland last month after 10 years of working with local entrepreneurs helping them start and run their businesses.

He is now continuing to work at the center as entrepreneur-in-residence, in addition to his new job as senior principal of Gabriel Venture Partners.

At a time when the "new economy" is booming across the country particularly in the Washington area Mr. Heller is getting involved in venture capital, which has always interested him.

In his double capacity of mentor to members of the local business community and financier, Mr. Heller has many tales to tell of his tenure at the Dingman Center and in the business field altogether.

Question: Has the center become what you had envisioned when you became its director?

Answer: I wanted to do two things here. The primary thing was to build a center which could become the major support and provider of infrastructure for entrepreneurs in the region. And I am talking about the 1990s, when there wasn't such a thing, but having started two companies I knew there was a huge need for it. From my own experiences, what I needed was mentoring by other experienced entrepreneurs who had been there and done it.

The second thing was help with obtaining financing. Those two were really the main thing.

Secondary to that was training entrepreneurs on starting and running a company. And that's how we began looking for that support structure.

Internally, within the university, I wanted to build an entrepreneur curriculum for students who wanted to start their own companies.

All those things I have done in the past 10 years. And I feel good about it. I think we've succeeded on most fronts.

Q: What are some of the Dingman Center's best accomplishments?

A: Probably the most valuable thing we do on a long-term basis is the mentor program. When we first started 10 years ago, I called some friends who were at the same stage as me, and asked them to volunteer a little of their time for the program. I was hoping to have 20 to 25 volunteers. But I never realized how much people like it we have over 200 volunteers today. They work one-on-one with the entrepreneurs, helping them in every business region imaginable. We've certainly helped a lot of companies survive and succeed over the years.

The volunteers are really the heart and soul of the center. Some have been here the entire 10 years, others have dropped out for periods of time because they are so busy. But they always come back.

They are two kinds of people. Some are successful entrepreneurs who enjoy it and hope to give something back. Probably 40 percent of them fit into that group. The other 60 are service providers: Lawyers, accountants, consultants. They are really looking for future clients.

Their motivation may be different, but their contribution is just as important.

Q: Is there anything you wanted to do that was never realized?

A: Yes, that's a good question. I wanted to start a seed venture capital fund. The companies we deal with are usually very new start-ups and nearly all of them need seed funds to start up. Typically, they are too early in the stages for venture capital. So I had hoped we would start a fund like that.

The reason it didn't work is because with the University of Maryland being a state university well, the rules and the bureaucracy of being a state entity just got in the way and made it impossible to do.

That's the bad news. The good news is we help facilitate investments. Together with the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association, we formed something called the Private Investors Network, which is 130-plus angel investors in the region. So when entrepreneurs come to us with their business plan, we screen the deals, and feed all the best to this group.

Q: How did you become an entrepreneur?

A: Jeez. Well, all my academic training was in engineering. I started my professional life by working for two large companies, McDonald Douglas, an aerospace company in California, and Bell Telephone Laboratories. That was a two-and-a-half-years' experience which convinced me that the last thing in the world I wanted to do was work for a big company. I was one of thousands of engineers there basically lost somewhere in the big picture.

So I decided I wanted to build a big company and be in charge of it, or I wanted to teach. And since I had no business experience, I decided to leave the big company and teach. That's how I ended up in my early academic career at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. While I was there, I realized I needed the union card to teach at the university level that's a Ph.D. so I got it at Catholic University while teaching.

While there I was also doing some consulting in computer-aided design, and I got some ideas that could be turned into companies. So the entrepreneurial bug really bit me while finishing my Ph.D.

Almost immediately I became the youngest tenured faculty member at the Academy and, three months later, I quit and started my own company.

Q: What distinguishes entrepreneurs from the rest of us?

A: A couple of things. I think an entrepreneur differs from a normal, sane person in a number of ways. Entrepreneurs are really driven people, in that they have set certain goals and almost nothing will stop them from achieving them.

One thing they all have is perseverance, because there are so many setbacks. It's this drive to succeed and do almost anything within the legal and ethical bounds to get there …

One interesting thing is that entrepreneurs are the single group with the largest divorce rate. It's because entrepreneurs marry their companies, forget their families. Running a company is a family effort. I'm an exception I have been married for 40 years.

The other thing is risk taking. Other people just won't take such financial and career chances because most fail. At least the first time.

Q: What changes have occurred in the economy and the region during your career so far?

A: Locally, it's a difference between night and day. When I started my first company, this was the black hole of entrepreneurship. Nobody here could identify with someone starting a high-tech company. I always envied my friends in Silicon Valley and Boston, who lived in booming areas. What we had here consisted of government contractors who had a fairly safe existence pushing papers for the government and getting paid for it. And there were a lot of real estate people.

We couldn't find a banker who understood the business, an accountant who knew the kinds of numbers we were dealing with, or a lawyer who understood intellectual property issues. Now it's a hotbed for the new economy. All of this exists.

The main thing missing then was the support structure, financing, and having people to talk to who had done this before. That's where the Dingman Center came in, and what I set up to do.

Q: What changes do you foresee in the local economy?

A: I think it's going to continue this way for now. But the local infrastructure, the roads, especially in Northern Virginia and Montgomery County well, they are going to choke on their own traffic and congestion.

And there is nobody doing anything about it.

My prediction is that things will get a lot worse before they get better. There is a shortage of skilled people, and they are not going to stand the quality of life if it continues to get worse.

I think companies will start moving out soon enough.

Q: What is your advice for young entrepreneurs?

A: I try very hard to give them the benefit of my experience. There are lots of problems down the road, and that's expected. But hang in there.

Entrepreneurs are impatient, but they have to persevere. They have to get over having a hard time finding financing, and mainly I try to tell them that it's hard to do.

Q: If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

A: Nothing is specific, but, if I had known when I started what I know now, I would have been an unbelievable success.

I got so involved in managing my company, that I stopped being on the forefront of the technology the company was based on. Because of that I lost a deep understanding of the market we were in, and I relied too much on other people to do that.

I wouldn't want to be a pioneer again. It's a neat thing to tell your grandchildren, but boy, is it hard.

If I were going to do things differently, that would have been it not be a pioneer.

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