Innovative mentorship program harnesses the power of the UNC network

Whether their goal is to make the world a better place, satisfy a desire for adventure and exploration or help people in underserved communities, the elite group of UNC students who are part of the Adams Apprenticeship program share one thing in common: they don’t dream small. And they aren’t just dreaming, they’re doing – translating ideas into reality to make a difference in the world.

“A spirit of transformational thinking is a start, but entrepreneurs say thinking about a solution is not enough. They have the entrepreneurial mindset and the skills to do the work and take their ideas into action,” says Judith Cone, UNC-Chapel Hill vice chancellor for commercialization and economic development. “Entrepreneurs see needs and bring solutions to those [problems].”

That’s where UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Adams Apprenticeship comes in. What began as a desire to supercharge entrepreneurship education at the Business School evolved into the creation of a game-changing program that harnesses the power of the Carolina alumni network. Each year, the program connects a new cohort of apprentices with more than 120 seasoned advisors who mentor students and help them translate ideas into real-world success.

“That’s one of the things that key mentors can do – they can see the potential in you and push you to go beyond where you think you can,” says Adams Advisor Vickie Gibbs (MBA ’98). “Sometimes those are hard conversations and sometimes those are great conversations. You have to be able to listen to the critical feedback and utilize it to carry yourself forward.”


The program also helps budding entrepreneurs gain access to key resources. “I think that’s what separates the good people from the great people when it comes to really trying to take your venture to the next level,” says Camille McGirt (MPH ’17). “You can work like a maniac and have a really good idea, but if you don’t have access to resources then you might not get very far.”

And the support doesn’t end at graduation. The Adams Apprenticeship is designed to foster long-term relationships and a lifelong network on the premise that each student will eventually transition from apprentice to advisor.

“As I grow and develop as an entrepreneur, I’ll be able to call on these advisors and this network when I need advice,” says Mihir Pershad (BS ’16). “And [I hope] that I will be able to pass that on, too.”

“This commitment involves deciding that you’re going to help pay it forward by bringing up the next generation of entrepreneurs,” says Ted Zoller, T.W. Lewis Clinical Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. “A life of commitment and a life of fulfillment – especially in business – is a life where you’ve given back.”

Adapted from remarks given at the 2016 Adams Forum, a day-long summit for Adams apprentices and advisors. 

Announcing Eric Becker as the 2016 Adams Entrepreneurial Pioneer Award Recipient!

Launching the next generation of entrepreneurs


Serving others was a non-negotiable for Eric Becker when he was growing up in Baltimore, Md. On any given week, his mom and dad could be found helping others in their community – from teaching speech lessons to inner-city school kids to providing scholarships for minority students.

That spirit led Becker – a successful businessman and entrepreneur who now calls Chicago home – toward a life of philanthropy and mentorship. His mission is simple: to honor his own success by helping others in their entrepreneurial journey.

And that’s exactly what he’s done.

Becker funds and mentors entrepreneurs through his private equity fund, Sterling Partners, and impact investment firm, Caretta Partners. He also co-chairs Chicago Ideas Week – an annual event that draws innovators from around the world – and volunteers with Karma for Cara, a nonprofit founded in memory of his daughter.

But at Carolina, Becker is perhaps best known for his role in founding Launch Chapel Hill – the brainchild of his son, Greg (UNC ’12) – and his service as a mentor in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Adams Apprenticeship Program, both of which fueled UNC’s exploding entrepreneurial ecosystem.

His efforts earned Becker the honor of being the first-ever recipient of the Adams Entrepreneurial Pioneer Award. The award recognizes a person who has achieved career-long success as an entrepreneur and, most importantly, demonstrated their service, commitment and dedication to supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs.

“When we thought about potential people to receive this award, it was amazing how one name came to mind: Eric Becker,” says Ted Zoller, director of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and the T.W. Lewis Clinical Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. “He’s a person that inspires us all.”

Becker accepted the award at a celebration kicking off the inaugural Adams Apprenticeship Forum, a daylong event for advisors and apprentices.

The Adams Apprenticeship is a game-changer for students serious about forging careers as entrepreneurs. Established in 2014 thanks to the generosity of the John Adams family – John Adams Sr., John Adams Jr., Vicki Adams and JQ Adams (BSBA ’14) – and the John and Patricia Adams Family Foundation, the program provides an elite group of UNC students with two years of entrepreneurship training and programs, followed by lifelong support from a network of alumni and UNC-affiliated mentors around the world.

At UNC Kenan-Flagler, apprentices take two years of for-credit Entrepreneurs Lab (E-Lab) courses which involve leadership development, required readings, guest speakers and networking trips to San Francisco and New York.

The program also provides apprentices access to a network of entrepreneurial mentors around the world. Every mentor has committed to giving an hour of their time to any apprentice who asks. These advisors “provide connections and ‘big bricks’ to help take entrepreneurs to the next level,” says Zoller, who expects the Adams Apprenticeship program will create a “flywheel” effect in which apprentices will eventually serve as advisors for new apprentices and for each other.

The celebration marked the transition of the inaugural cohort of 30 Adams Apprentices from mentees to mentors. Borrowing a long-standing military tradition, members of the inaugural cohort – who began their journey in January 2015 – were presented with commemorative Adams Apprentice challenge coins.

The second Adams Apprenticeship cohort launched in January 2016 and is comprised of 26 UNC students – a mix of business and public health graduate students and undergraduate juniors from nine different majors, including business, economics, environmental studies and journalism. Some apprentices have already started companies – including Thomas Doochin (CommuniGift), Austin Helms (Waterless Buddy’s), Taylor Robinette (Friendli) and Charlotte Guice (Olly Oxen).

The Adams Apprentices are “some of the most inspirational people I’ve ever had the chance to work with,” says Zoller. “They are what keep me alive every day.”

Becker, who is an Adams Advisor, believes the program has the potential “to become a national example of how we can all help others to follow in our entrepreneurial footsteps and achieve their own dreams.”

And he would know.

Becker’s entrepreneurial journey began as a business student at the University of Chicago, where he wrote his first business plan in his dorm room. But his biggest lessons came from mentors.

He interned with Chicago real estate and restaurant entrepreneur Larry Levy, who taught him an important lesson about being resourceful. Levy tasked Becker with finding a particular site map buried in a sea of rolled up maps and plans. When Becker came up empty-handed, Levy told him he needed to find the map – even if it meant calling Rand McNally or an architect to get a copy.

“The lesson has been learned – I need to bring results and answers, not more questions,” says Becker.

Years later, Becker asked Levy to introduce him to an important business contact. Instead of a connection, Levy shared some words of wisdom: Just call. You should be comfortable calling anyone, he said.

Becker carried these lessons with him throughout his career. Now, he’s eager to give back and help the next generation of entrepreneurs achieve success.

His passion is matched by thoughtfulness in the biggest sense of the world, says his brother Doug, who spoke at the awards ceremony. “Everything he does is thoughtful. He’s introspective in a world where most people put one foot in front of the other.”

Becker’s colleagues, mentors and mentees agree. In a tribute video shown at the awards ceremony, they described Becker as a “world-class entrepreneur” with a “generosity of spirit” who lives his values and “wants to have impact in his career by supporting others to [help them] realize their dreams.” And he’s never too busy to help a friend or colleague, they add.

With his “inquisitive mind and insatiable appetite to learn everything,” Becker built a reputation as a leader who takes ideas and melds them together to “build something really meaningful.”

That’s precisely what he did at Carolina. Inspired by his son Greg’s idea to create a startup accelerator in Chapel Hill, Becker championed the initiative and encouraged his wife Jill and brother Doug to get involved. Launch Chapel Hill – a partnership between UNC Kenan-Flagler, the Chancellor’s Innovative Carolina initiative, the Town of Chapel Hill, Orange County and the Becker family – opened in 2013 and has helped dozens of student and community startups launch, grow and raise capital. In 2015, Launch earned UNC recognition for having the No. 4 best performing university accelerator in North America.

As an Adams Advisor, Becker hopes to inspire his apprentices to pay it forward once they have achieved their own success.

“When you become parents, mentor your children,” he advised attendees. “And when you have the opportunity to mentor others in business, give back by helping them to achieve their dreams.”

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San Francisco Networking Trip: "Empowering Entrepreneurs"

Empowering entrepreneurs to build the future


Silicon Valley builds the future. It embodies a sense of possibility for what the future could be.

Visiting the Silicon Valley and San Francisco through UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Adams Apprenticeship was a game-changer. We made valuable connections that many business school students dream of.

We met Andrew M. Thompson, co-founder and CEO of Proteus Digital Health, on our trek. The company creates smart pills that work with a patch to inform patients and their doctors whether they have taken their medication properly.

Compliance is a huge problem in medicine. Proteus’ solution could potentially save hundreds – if not hundreds of thousands – of lives. Thompson predicts that digital health will become the next “Internet of Things” – and expects his company to be a multi-billion dollar company at the forefront.

“Courage is in shorter supply than intellect.”Venture capitalist Peter Thiel

Thompson is intelligent, insightful and pragmatic – but his courage and conviction set him apart. Courage is the primary factor that distinguishes successful entrepreneurs from those who never even begin.

One of the advantages of UNC Kenan-Flagler – and the Adams Apprenticeship, in particular – is that it inspires and empowers you to build your own business within five years of graduating. Our trek to Silicon Valley showed us that we each possess the potential to build the future. UNC Kenan-Flagler gives us the connections and knowledge to do it and bolsters our courage and, but it is up to us to execute our visions.

The most powerful moment of our journey in San Francisco was when Thompson ended his talk by advising that employers, family and friends don’t own us or our futures: “Only you own you.”

By Will Jarvis (BA ’16)

2015 Calendar of Events

The purpose of the Adams Apprenticeship is to accelerate the entrepreneurial careers of UNC's highest potential student leaders.  Through a series of networking events, co-curricular sessions and company tours, the program provides students with exposure to how world class entrepreneurs operate, as well as the resources to become the next generation of successful entrepreneurs.



January 13: Adams Kick-off Reception in Chapel Hill (Advisors & Apprentices)

January 13: Co-curricular #1 "Developing your personal network" with Ted Zoller & Brett Nicol

February 9: Co-curricular #2 "Introduction to the Adams Apprenticeship program" with Brett Nicol in Durham's American Underground

March 23: Co-curricular #3 "Entrepreneurial Skill Assessment: StrengthsFinder" with David Bond

April 19-20: New York City Networking Trip & Company Tours (Advisors & Apprentices)

April 28: Co-curricular #4 "Career Paths of Highly Successful Entrepreneurs: Founders, Funders & Growth Executives" with Bill Goodwin

May 4: Spring Networking event at Lonerider Brewery


August 24: Welcome back bbq at Launch Chapel Hill

September 8: Fall kick-off at Google Chapel Hill (Advisors & Apprentices)

September 14: Co-curricular #5, "Building Your Entrepreneurial Leadership Plan Workshop" with David Bond, 5-7pm (Advisors & Apprentices)

September 28: Co-curricular #6, "Building Your Personal Board of Advisors Workshop" with Scott Brown (Advisors & Apprentices)

October 1: Begin accepting applications for Class of 2016

October 20, 5:30-7:30pm @ Launch: Adams info session for prospective applicants

November 1: Application deadline for Class of 2016

November 12-13: San Francisco Networking Trip & Company Tours (Advisors & Apprentices)

December 5: Class of 2016 announced

January 19/20/21, 2016: Adams Kick-off Reception (Advisors & Apprentices)