Growing up in quiet Dover, Massachusetts, Debi Kleiman dreamed of a career that was far removed from the pretty fields and sleepy suburban streets around her.
That career? Kleiman wanted to be a late-night TV talk show host. She liked that hosts were able to meet all kinds of people and hear their stories.
“I’m genuinely interested in people,” Kleiman says. “I guess I have a natural curiosity about what makes people tick.”
Kleiman may never have become a talk show host, but that curiosity about people has never left her. As executive director of Babson’s Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, she encounters many, many entrepreneurs and learns about their lives.
The Blank Center’s mission is to help entrepreneurs grow and thrive, and Kleiman relishes hearing the stories behind their startups. “Inherently, they are doing something very personal,” she says. “The idea of a startup often comes from their personal desire to solve a problem that plagues them or people they know.”
Where the Magic Is
The Blank Center manages a host of programs and events that are an essential part of entrepreneurial life at Babson. Those include the B.E.T.A. Challenge startup competition, the Butler Launch Pad and Summer Venture Program business accelerators, and Rocket Pitch, an event where students present business ideas in rapid-fire fashion.
The center organizes an annual celebration for Global Entrepreneurship Week and hosts How 2 Tuesdays, a weekly discussion on a practical topic helpful to startups. The center also is home to the prestigious Babson College Entrepreneurship Research Conference and the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor research project.
Perhaps most critically, the center serves as a supportive community for those experiencing the highs and lows of entrepreneurship. “It’s a community of entrepreneurs who help each other,” Kleiman says. “That’s what is really important. That’s where the magic is.” In all, more than 300 Babson students interact with the center every year.
Entrepreneurship Never Ends
Kleiman’s office is located on the second floor of the Blank Center building. Behind her desk hang several inspirational quotes. “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” reads one. “Never, never, never give up,” reads another.
The Summer Venture Program, one of the center’s signature initiatives, has been Kleiman’s focus in recent days. The program’s final showcase, in which the 13 student teams in the 10-week program present their business ventures, is fast approaching. That means Kleiman is busy. Granted, that’s nothing unusual. “Entrepreneurship never ends,” she says.
As Blank’s executive director, Kleiman has many responsibilities. She meets with alumni and recruits them as mentors for the center, for instance, and she serves as an ambassador for the center in the community. But as she coaches students for their showcase presentations, she is performing one of her favorite duties, that of working with people to tell their stories.
It’s a revealing process. In a manner not too dissimilar from the talk show hosts that she once wanted to be, Kleiman will ask questions, seeking out what is driving students to build their businesses.
The goal is for students to be genuine in their presentations, to share what is special about themselves and their ventures. An engaging story can be effective in attracting potential investors and customers. “A personal story is so authentic,” Kleiman says. “Being able to tell a story engages people far more than charts and data.”
Kleiman has had a long and varied career. Before Babson, she led teams in new product development for major brands and oversaw marketing at several tech startups, and she served as president of a tech trade association and managing director of a global media agency.
One constant through those roles has been the many creative and entrepreneurial-minded people she has come to know. “I love the creativity that entrepreneurs have for solving problems,” she says. “They look at the world differently. I feel a kindred spirit with that attitude. It’s inspiring.”
For students coming to the Blank Center, she hopes they grasp that same entrepreneurial spirit.
That spirit will allow them to take on whatever problems they may encounter. “It’s a mindset,” she says. “We want them to walk away with the entrepreneurial mindset to solve problems, to have a bias for action, and to have the confidence that they know how to act in any situation.”
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