Founder of UM’s Launch Pad returns to her roots

Founder of UM’s Launch Pad returns to her roots

By Cibeles Duran

Founder of UM’s Launch Pad returns to her roots

By Cibeles Duran
Like her father before her, Susan Amat started a UM initiative and spread it nationwide. Now, after a hiatus from teaching and leading campus entrepreneurship programs, the professor of management retakes her passion.

With a defining entrepreneurial spirit, Miami Herbert’s Susan Amat built her first company at age 15, exited it by 25, launched entrepreneurship centers across universities, and laid the groundwork to make Miami a new tech hub, among many ventures in between. With an entrepreneurial and academic father, the late Frank Wills, professor of English at the University of Miami for 34 years, she essentially “grew up on campus,” as she describes, and absorbed her father’s drive to identify and implement solutions to problems. In fact, in 1969, realizing that few African American books were available at university libraries, Wills created the first publishing company in the country for African American books, bringing nearly obsolete titles by Black authors back to life and establishing UM’s department of African American studies, an effort that he extended across universities nationwide. He similarly helped secure the continuation of titles by Cuban authors for the Cuban exile community upon Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

Amat’s upbringing marked her own career path. Seeing her father’s energy, she quickly embraced entrepreneurship as an impulse to be a problem solver in every aspect of life.

“When you see a challenge or something that can be improved, you want to be that person to find a way and fix it,” she explains. “I was very lucky to grow up with that example.”

As a teenager, she identified her first business challenge.

“My friends had bands, but they were not business minded. They wanted to book shows, make sure they got paid, and put records out, so I thought, ‘let’s do this,’” she recalls.

What started as problem-solving for her friends grew through the years into a record label, the first CD-ROM magazine, and a successful television show. But after a decade in the music industry, she exited her company and enrolled as an undergraduate at UM as she pondered the next step in her career. Soon, she discovered an interest in helping people mold their behavior by giving them the right tools. She began designing and building medical devices focused on pediatric biofeedback. Realizing, however, that she needed stronger validation among her peers of doctors and medical professionals, she returned to UM for her MBA and doctorate degrees.

A triple ’Cane, BLA ’01, MBA ’04, and Ph.D. ’08, Amat solidified her interest in the behavioral side of venture development. She attributes her love of developing the people behind the businesses to her mentor and dissertation chair, Professor of Organizational Behavior Terri Scandura.

“She helped me become the person that I am today,” says Amat. “I love building businesses and strategy, but at the end of the day, how you build the people to run the businesses, training them to be executives and working with them to develop themselves as leaders, that’s really where the magic lies,” she says.

Starting as a doctoral student, she taught classes on strategy, leadership, and marketing for entrepreneurs in the business school in addition to co-teaching courses in biomedical and industrial engineering.

In 2008, as she was completing her dissertation, a breakthrough moment occurred when Vice Provost Bill Green approached her for her ideas on a potential entrepreneurship center. She quickly presented him with a full proposal, filled with her vision for a center that would enable students to learn to be data driven, test and validate concepts, and even fail as needed in the course of developing solid business ideas. That proposal became the blueprint for UM’s Launch Pad. Amat served as the founding executive director, garnering the attention of investment management company Blackstone and the educational organization Kauffman Foundation, which together facilitated the opportunity for her to replicate her vision across universities internationally – as her father had similarly done with African American studies.

“It was a dream come true in every way,” she says, “and such an incredible testament to how forward thinking the University of Miami has been.”

In 2012, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Jimenez came to her, asking how we can create Miami-Dade into a tech hub. She felt a strong calling, stating: “The only reason that I would ever leave UM is for an opportunity like that.”

Having realized the limitations of the Launch Pad model, this new initiative focused on economic development through education, sharing a new vision for Miami with the world. With Venture Hive’s launch in 2013, in addition to world-class startups joining the program, the entire ecosystem engaged with more than 200 public events per year and visitors from all walks of life – and over 100 countries in year one – witnessing the diversity and accessibility of the burgeoning tech scene. Authentically by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs.

In her new venture, Amat partnered with the visionaries behind the prestigious Miami Worldcenter, built a team, and launched the first accelerator program for economic development in the country. The program entailed recruiting tech-based companies from around the world that operate in industries strongly fitting the Miami market. In their first year of operation, Amat and her team received over 2,000 applications from more than 40 countries for only 10 spots.

By the end of 2013, she and her team had designed software capable of scaling their efforts. By 2014 they were running virtual and hybrid programs focused on developing data-driven entrepreneurs, leading to both licensing and consulting clients such as the U.S. State Department, Microsoft, Visa, and the World Bank. Venture Hive’s impact was assessed early and often, including a REMI study showing a 12:1 ratio of value created in the county. Under a partnership with the Global Entrepreneurship Network, where she serves as the vice president of education, Amat also designed and runs programming for the Entrepreneurship World Cup, which has quickly become the largest global competition for entrepreneurs. The contest garners an average of 175,000 applications from over 195 countries and allocates $90 million in prizes each year.

Though she describes the achievements as “an incredible experience,” her love of teaching and the campus that marked her growth and career development have beckoned her return. This fall, she rejoins Miami Herbert’s management department as an associate professor of practice and the director of entrepreneurship initiatives. To her delight, the Launch Pad remains a place on campus for people with business ideas to feel part of a community. Amat credits the leadership of current director, Brian Breslin, and Vice Provost for Innovation Norma Kenyon for maintaining the center’s purpose and culture.

Resuming her role as a Miami Herbert professor and ready to guide new entrepreneurship initiatives, she once again walks in her father’s footsteps while nonetheless leading her own entrepreneurial path.