Interview with Deborah D. Hoover

For more than 50 years, Burton D. Morgan Foundation (BDMF) has been a pioneer in the world of entrepreneurship philanthropy. Established just over 50 years ago by Burton D. Morgan, a mechanical engineer and serial entrepreneur, the foundation has led the charge in championing an entrepreneurial spirit in Northeast Ohio, investing for decades to develop, support, and grow a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. Its programs, which focus on youth, collegiate, and adult entrepreneurship, work to strengthen the networks and programs that drive entrepreneurial activity across its region. 

The Philanthropy Roundtable sat down with Deborah D. Hoover, who has been president and CEO of Burton D. Morgan Foundation since 2007, to discuss the foundation's initiatives. Hoover has spoken at many of the Roundtable's entrepreneurship events, sharing her long-time expertise with other funders. 

Hoover was instrumental in establishing the Northeast Ohio Collegiate Entrepreneurship Program, a collaboration between Morgan and Kauffman Foundations aimed at increasing entrepreneurship on liberal arts campuses. She also spearheaded a collaborative effort with the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to establish NEOLaunchNET, formerly the Blackstone LaunchPad Program. Hoover led the decision to establish the Entrepreneurship Education Experiment (E3), the research arm of Morgan Foundation that advances the field of entrepreneurship education through leading edge research projects and programs.

With its steadfast commitment to position Northeast Ohio as a leader in the innovation economy, few other foundations rival BDMF's dedication to promoting entrepreneurship education. The Philanthropy Roundtable is particularly interested in the foundation's work to build capacity for youth entrepreneurship.


"I like the idea that entrepreneurship, which is how I got to this point in my life, is to be treated as a genuine career at the universities and colleges in the United States." ~ Burton D. Morgan


BDMF is the leader in developing and supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Northeast Ohio. Where did that focus come from, and what keeps you consistently true to the mission?

Burton D. Morgan Foundation's mission is grounded in our donor's intent to support entrepreneurial pursuits and the free enterprise system. A strong entrepreneurial community requires the backing of a multifaceted ecosystem that provides networks, capital, mentoring, education, talent, ideas, and space. Burt Morgan addressed all of these elements through his personal quest to champion the entrepreneurial spirit. While the shape and character of our regional ecosystem changes frequently, we remain steadfast supporters relying on the beacon of donor intent and the mission our founder articulated for the foundation that bears his name.


How does BDMF define entrepreneurship?

Our definition of entrepreneurship is "developing an economic venture or solution that adds value, embodies innovation and creativity, and involves risk to its initiators."


Why did your founder, Burton D. Morgan, place such importance on entrepreneurship and private enterprise?

Burt was a true visionary and believed ardently in the power of entrepreneurship. Decades ago, before entrepreneurship education was as prevalent as it is today, he recognized the need for aspiring entrepreneurs to gain the tools they need to be successful. For this reason, he dedicated the resources of his foundation to advance the cause of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship education.

Burt funded one of the first business plan competitions in the nation at his alma mater, Purdue University, a competition that is still a cornerstone of Purdue's program 30 years after its creation. He thrived on the roller coaster ride of the entrepreneur and wanted others to experience the joys and rewards of being an entrepreneur, but also to be equipped to meet the challenges.

How would you describe the evolution of the foundation's strategy over the last decade?

Burton D. Morgan Foundation is a dynamic organization that operates proactively and strategically, never satisfied with the status quo and at its best when inspiring excellence and driving change. Through the work of the foundation and its partners, entrepreneurship has a strong voice and a heightened role in Northeast Ohio. Our collective efforts over the last decade have generated a vibrant startup and scale-up culture and established our region as a place where entrepreneurs can grow their ventures within a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem. 

While the foundation's new strategic framework, Venture 2021, aims to reaffirm Burt's ambitious goals, it simultaneously positions our organization for the next chapter in its evolution. Going forward, our work will be focused in three main areas — grantmaking, ecosystem building, and knowledge sharing. These threads of work will not be mutually exclusive — each will bolster and reinforce the others in deliberate and strategic ways. 

In recent years, our work has addressed entrepreneurship across Northeast Ohio with a broad brush. Given the expansiveness and complexity of our evolving ecosystem, we are becoming more specialized and targeted so that we can maximize the impact of our resources through synergistic investments.


How has the entrepreneurship space changed, from a philanthropic perspective, over the years? Am I right in saying that when BDMF made its first entrepreneurial ecosystem grants, it was a far less crowded space?

When we began our work as a regional ecosystem builder 15 years ago, we had to search for partners to help us achieve our goals. Since 2004, the foundation has played a major role in the Fund for Our Economic Future, the groundbreaking philanthropic collaborative that has been advancing the economic competitiveness of Northeast Ohio. Through our strong relationships with the fund and its members we have been able to help shape a regional agenda that has given rise to the key elements of our entrepreneurial ecosystem. The Northeast Ohio ecosystem has expanded into a teeming network strengthened by more participants and more supporters.


At a time when there is growing concern about the changing nature of work — the "future of work" — we keep hearing about the importance of the entrepreneurial mindset in fostering key work skills. Given the foundation's focus on youth entrepreneurship, how do you think entrepreneurship education equips young people for both life and work success?

Burton D. Morgan Foundation believes in the power of the entrepreneurial mindset — the skill set that can contribute significantly to the resiliency, flexibility, creativity, courage, and confidence of each and every student. These are the skills that can help our students meet the demands of a 21st-century education and the bigger challenges that will surely confront them in college and in their adult lives as they face the ever-shifting world of work. We owe it to our students to help them develop the entrepreneurial mindset and to prepare for a future in which the character of work will look vastly different. The entrepreneurial mindset will set our students on a path to having greater agency over their lives and careers whether they choose to become an entrepreneur or choose to take a different path.


Have you seen a growing sophistication in programs targeted for youth?

To truly change the culture of our region, we must generate dialogue around and build awareness of the power of entrepreneurship to transform lives. We promote entrepreneurship for young people through a variety of programs, including the region-wide Lemonade Day program, in cooperation with the Young Entrepreneur Institute at University School. Lemonade Day teaches grade schoolers the fundamentals of business through the vehicle of the all-American lemonade stand. Western Reserve Historical Society has built an expansive program that delivers entrepreneurship education to thousands of Cleveland Metropolitan School District students based on its collections at the History Center and Hale Farm & Village. Northeast Ohio's Junior Achievement programs have become highly collaborative and innovative as a result of the foundation's grants and convening efforts. In fall 2015, the foundation worked with our partner Young Entrepreneur Institute to launch a dynamic regional entrepreneurship education conference (ENSPIRE), annually attracting hundreds of educators to learn from national experts in the field. 

All of our initiatives are structured around specific goals and metrics that we monitor and utilize to inform future plans and decision making. Through ongoing experimentation and iteration we advance the sophistication and effectiveness of youth programming. We convene the leaders of youth entrepreneurship programming regularly to promote collaboration, shared learning, and ecosystem building. The result of these efforts is an ecosystem of energetic youth entrepreneurship champions in Northeast Ohio that serves as a model for other regions.


Many of our funders support entrepreneurship programs at the university level. What "lessons learned" can you offer from your experience working in collegiate entrepreneurship?

We are funding entrepreneurship programs at most of the higher education institutions in Northeast Ohio. We spend a good deal of time generating the connections that build the regional network of collegiate programs. We are also interested in creating pathways among different levels of entrepreneurship programs.

We have been building a collegiate ecosystem since 2007 when we established the Northeast Ohio Collegiate Entrepreneurship Program (NEOCEP) in partnership with Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. NEOCEP aimed to embed interdisciplinary entrepreneurship programs on liberal arts campuses. From this program, we learned the value of peer-to-peer learning — the program was highly experimental and consequently there was great value in shared learning and iteration. The campuses came together every few months to compare notes and sometimes pivot in their approaches. Also in 2007, Entrepreneurship Education Consortium formed among seven schools and began offering jointly planned programming — Idealabs and Immersion Week. Eventually EEC expanded to 10 schools and continues a decade later.

In 2009, JumpStart Higher Education Collaboration Council (JSHECC) formed with a goal of connecting higher education to services in the ecosystem, but also for peer-to-peer learning, organized by Morgan Foundation and JumpStart. In 2012, the ecosystem added Blackstone LaunchPad, now NEOLaunchNET, a network of five campuses. The five schools also share in the services of Intellectual Property Venture Clinic through the School of Law at Case Western Reserve University. From all of this work, we have learned that it takes time to build the trust required to function collaboratively. We are also convinced that entrepreneurship thrives on campuses where interdisciplinary connections are fostered and encouraged. Entrepreneurship on college campuses must grow from the special culture of the institution and have the vocal backing of key leadership.


Overall entrepreneurship philanthropy seems to focus more on supporting "startups" and less on "scaleups." With your focus on entrepreneurial ecosystems, does BDMF fund the entire range of entrepreneurial development?

Our mission is to champion the entrepreneurial spirit. Rapidly growing entrepreneurial companies embody that spirit and contribute to the improvement of their communities by creating economic prosperity and opportunity. To foster more high-growth, entrepreneurial ventures in Northeast Ohio, we support several efforts to help existing ventures "scaleup" their growth.

Scalerator NEO is a proven educational approach to helping companies with "scaleup" potential to inject immediate growth to their top and bottom lines. We are seeing that as cohorts of business leaders learn to apply the proven, practical lessons offered by the faculty from Babson College and other top universities, they are growing their companies. And we expect that growth will escalate as the companies take advantage of other mentoring resources that are available to high-growth potential companies in Northeast Ohio.

Our hope is that the Scalerator NEO ( will serve as another valued resource in a suite of services used by entrepreneurs who want their companies to join our region's long list of high-growth ventures, and continue to build Northeast Ohio's reputation as a vibrant region full of entrepreneurial spirit.


Access to capital can be a huge barrier, particularly for low-income entrepreneurs. Have you identified promising programs or strategies on that front?

Northeast Ohio is working to support inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship through many different vehicles including, for example, JumpStart's Core City Program, Hebrew Free Loan Association, and the Economic Community Development Institute. In general, we believe that to truly transform a region diversity, equity, and inclusion principles and values must be embedded in the fiber of every organization, including those that support innovators and entrepreneurs. Northeast Ohio is making progress through the support of racial equity training for thousands of community leaders in recent years. In addition, organizations like the Fund for Our Economic Future promote the goal of economic growth, but with a laser focus on growth paired with opportunity.


Looking to the future, what are you most excited about in this space? Is there a particular problem or challenge that keeps you up at night, or is it more about limitless possibilities?

I am extremely excited to be among the leadership of the Entrepreneurship Funders Network, a recently established forum for foundations and other entities that focus on funding entrepreneurship. Together this group is working to "establish an inclusive community of practice committed to learning and working together to better support entrepreneurs and improve the conditions that enable them to be successful." In the context of entrepreneurship support, we are addressing big, hairy questions around metrics, inclusion, evaluation, shared definitions, and advocacy. 


What advice would you give to a funder who is considering entrepreneurship as a new investment area? What might you suggest if they are specifically interested in youth entrepreneurship?

Learning from those who have traveled this road is a great way to get started. We learned a great deal a decade ago from studying the practices and priorities of the Kauffman Foundation. Burton D. Morgan Foundation shares many stories, case studies, blogs, and diagrams on its website ( In the summer of 2019, we will publish on our website a new Intersections piece that will illuminate four case studies of key youth entrepreneurship initiatives we have fostered in Northeast Ohio.



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