We may live in disruptive times, but Stephen Spinelli Jr. MBA’92, PhD remains unshaken. Sure, he knows that the world is filled with head-spinning change and uncertainty, and he also knows that higher education is not immune to that. Colleges are merging, closing, and struggling to survive.
But Spinelli is an entrepreneur, and, as of July 1, he became the new president of Babson, the home of entrepreneurs of all kinds. He looks at all the doubt and upheaval a bit differently from others. He sees not chaos, but possibility. “The level of change in the world is so dramatic,” he says. “From an entrepreneur’s perspective, this is our time.”
A long-time member of the Babson community, who first stepped foot on campus in the 1980s to begin pursuing his MBA degree, Spinelli takes over leadership of the College as it’s celebrating its Centennial and looking ahead to its second century. Well-acquainted with the institution’s people and its prowess, Spinelli is confident that Babson is well-poised to adapt and thrive in this age of disruption.
“We have all the skills. We have the history. We have the intellectual content. We have the reputation,” he says. “We just need the courage to be bold.”
On a Mission
Spinelli considers his new job the culmination of a career that has spanned both business and academia. In 1979, he co-founded Jiffy Lube International and went on to become the oil change giant’s largest franchisee. Later, he spent 14 years working at Babson as a faculty member, provost, and director of The Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship.
Leaving Babson in 2007, he began a long-term tenure as president of Philadelphia University, ultimately leading a merger of the school with Thomas Jefferson University in 2017.
Spinelli says the job of a college president is fulfilling, but it’s also all-encompassing. Students and alumni from Philadelphia University reached out to him constantly from early morning to late at night. “I was immersed in Philadelphia,” he says. “It was intense, a hundred hours a week for 11 years.”
In 2018, Spinelli considered retiring after leaving Philadelphia University, now renamed Jefferson. But then Babson came calling. The chance to return to the College as its 14th president was too compelling an opportunity to pass up. “It was a homecoming of sorts,” says Spinelli, who doesn’t look upon his new post as just another stop in his long career. “It is a mission, not a job,” he says.
12 Years Later
With Spinelli back on campus, Babson alumni, faculty, and staff who knew him years ago may notice something different about him, namely that the man is now a wearer of hats, sporting fedoras in the winter and straw hats in the summer.
Spinelli assures that this new fashion choice isn’t a matter of style, but rather because he developed a hypersensitivity to ultraviolet light in his 50s and needed to cover up. “When I first started wearing hats, it was semi-embarrassing, because people think you’re trying to be cool and stylish,” he says. “I am not cool or stylish. There are a lot of things I am good at, but cool and stylish I’m not.”
Coming back to campus 12 years after first leaving for Philadelphia, he admits, was a bit surreal at first: “I like calling it a Back to the Future moment.” He was struck immediately by the students’ maturity and know-how. “The level of sophistication is most startling,” he says. Spinelli has marveled at the intensity of the questions asked at an eTower meeting. He has talked with student entrepreneurs who have the presence and smarts of someone years beyond their age.
He is pleased by the continued growth happening at Babson, considering that he first arrived on campus when entrepreneurship was still getting its sea legs at the institution. “It wasn’t even a division when I got here,” he says.
When he was a professor, Spinelli’s colleagues were pioneers of entrepreneurship at the College, professors William Bygrave and Jeffry Timmons. Spinelli and Timmons co-authored several editions of a book, New Venture Creation: Entrepreneurship for the 21st Century, that lays some of the groundwork for what would become Entrepreneurial Thought & Action®, the College’s key methodology for developing an entrepreneurial mindset.
When he returned to campus earlier this year, Spinelli saw how the seeds of entrepreneurship had continued to grow and flourish in his absence. “I saw how that lineage had grown, and that was motivating, exciting, and energizing,” he says. “Seeing that growth, you say, ‘Is there anything left to do?’ To be honest, there’s plenty.”
The Need for Knowledge
Spinelli takes over at Babson in a time of tumult in higher education. Dwindling enrollments and changing demographics are among the challenges many institutions are facing. Since 2016, more than 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. have closed. “Everybody is scared to death about what is going to happen in the future of higher education,” he says.
To counter that fear, Spinelli poses a question: Will the need for learning and knowledge be greater today or tomorrow? Or how about this year versus next? Spinelli believes that as the world continues to change so briskly, the need for education and continual learning will only increase.
That’s good news for colleges. If they’re open to collaboration and willing to adapt, Spinelli believes that they can prosper and meet that never-ending demand for knowledge. “Opportunity starts with demand,” he says. “If there is demand and we put together a business model that can fulfill that demand, we’re going to win.”
Spinelli warns that Babson is not immune to the market forces affecting higher ed, and the College is now embarking on a strategic planning effort for the future (see “Share Your Thoughts on the Strategic Plan”). The world is full of change, and Spinelli vows that the College will be ready. “Change is fertile ground for Entrepreneurial Thought & Action,” he says.
To be sure, the need for entrepreneurship education is not going away. In fact, Spinelli feels that the ability to think like an entrepreneur could become a required competency for the workplace. Who is better at navigating uncertainty and creating value than an entrepreneur?
“You should be thinking that way as an administrative assistant or a founder of a company or a general manager or an accountant. I do believe that,” says Spinelli. “The impact of Babson could be even greater over the next 20 years or 100 years than it is today.”