Pipeline Inc., the regional nonprofit network for entrepreneurs, is making broader corporate connections, and the first top-level partner to sign up is communications giant Sprint Nextel Corp.
Pipeline, based in Kansas City, Kan., has had corporate sponsors, including computer software company Microsoft, but Sprint's partnership represents a new level of connection that includes a commitment to attract other corporate partners and to work Pipeline's network into its own entrepreneurial endeavors.
Omaha and Lincoln are potential targets for new corporate partners because Pipeline extended its efforts to develop entrepreneurs into Nebraska and Missouri last year.
“This is going to be extremely impactful for the region,” said Davyeon Ross, a Pipeline fellowship alumnus from Kansas City and founder of Digital Sports Ventures. “This is the start of a revolution, of getting corporations more involved with entrepreneurship. ... It is inspiring that Sprint understands how Pipeline benefits our entire region.”
Pipeline's primary sponsor has been the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., which focuses on entrepreneurship. Kauffman awarded an $800,000, three-year grant to Pipeline to be matched dollar-for-dollar by private contributors, foundations and Pipeline.
Sprint's amount of financial support was not disclosed, but it will make it the second-largest single donor, said Pipeline President and CEO Joni Cobb. “While we are certainly excited about the financial support, we are equally excited about working together on new initiatives we develop over time.”
Sprint personnel will be involved directly in the program's fellowships and mentoring for its graduates.
Kevin McGinnis, a Sprint vice president, said the effort will enhance Sprint's contact with people who have innovative ideas, entrepreneurial energy and potentially successful business concepts, as well as improving the region's economy.
“It's a strategic pillar for us. It leads to innovative ways here,” energizing Sprint as it move toward being an innovative, Internet-focused company for the future,” he said. “Sprint is especially impressed that Pipeline's focus is on the entrepreneur, not the business.”
Over the past year Sprint put together a team of people who are focused on entrepreneurial efforts, McGinnis said. That group will work with Pipeline's fellowship program, including those who have completed the program and are active in mentoring each year's class of about 10 new fellows.
Sprint's 7,000 Kansas City-area employees have a wide range of expertise that will be valuable to entrepreneurs, such as raising capital, assessing business models, finding markets and planning for growth. Pipeline's entrepreneurs will have access to many of those people, McGinnis said.
Joe Hadzima, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and member of Pipeline's board of directors, said Sprint's agreement “is validating our belief that Pipeline's approach is important to large, innovative corporations as well.”
Cobb said that when Pipeline expanded to Nebraska last year, its advisers suggested finding corporate partners to support its regional approach, its nonprofit business model and its focus on late-stage entrepreneurs who have proven products or services and are beginning to expand into significant businesses.
She said the Sprint partnership will mean more and better support for Pipeline's active and growing list of graduates, who are known as ongoing members and who are spreading nationwide through their businesses. “As the membership grows, the needs also grow, so the opportunity is there.”