Just as he has done for more than a decade, Tom Miller — the McPherson Family Distinguished Professor of Engineering Entrepreneurship at NC State University — headed west in March for his annual spring break trip to California’s Silicon Valley.
These journeys are hardly solo vacations, however.
Accompanying Miller, who also is senior vice provost for academic outreach and entrepreneurship and executive director of the NC State Entrepreneurship Initiative, were 20 NC State students — chosen from a pool of more than 80 applicants. The trip gave them a chance to visit high-tech companies headquartered in the region.
“It’s pretty intense. We have a very exhausting schedule — morning till night,” Miller said.
The group visited the offices of what Miller called “the big three”: Google, Apple and Facebook. There are NC State alumni working at all three. In fact, Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, is a 1985 graduate of the university.
“He spent about an hour and a half with us when we visited Apple, and that’s just amazing for the students,” Miller said. “It also turns out that about half of Facebook’s networking team, which supports the biggest network of users in the world, came from NC State. We visited them, and they took us all around Facebook.”
Students also met the people behind some of the hottest startups in the nation, including NC State alumni who were essentially in their shoes just a few years ago.
“I took the current crop of students to visit some students who had life-changing experiences on this trip 10 years ago and ended up in Silicon Valley with venture-backed startups,” Miller said. “It’s a very powerful thing.”
Philanthropy makes these extraordinary experiences possible. While student participants pay for airfare, private support in the form of Miller’s distinguished professorship helps to cover other costs associated with the trip.
Thomas R. McPherson Jr., who earned two electrical engineering degrees at NC State — a bachelor’s in 1976 and a master’s in 1977 — established the McPherson Family Distinguished Professorship in Engineering Entrepreneurship in 2006. In addition to the Silicon Valley trip, the professorship supports other entrepreneurial initiatives that Miller leads at NC State, including the Entrepreneurship Initiative Garage and the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program. “There’s so much that you can’t do with the support that’s provided by the state, and research funding is for a very specific purpose,” Miller said.
Private support like endowed professorships and unrestricted gifts lets you do those things that you can’t do otherwise. It’s like the icing on the cake. If I didn’t have this private support, I certainly could not do the Silicon Valley trip year after year.
The opportunity to see Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in action — particularly those who walked the same pathways at NC State in the not-so-distant past — inspires students, Miller said. But he is also pleased many of his students are doing the same thing in North Carolina.
He pointed to the success of Medicom, a Raleigh-based startup that is revolutionizing the way patient data is shared. The company, founded by NC State students, is tackling a health care challenge that significantly impacts both costs and the quality of patient care.
“Their company now is valued at $10 million, and they’re students,” Miller said.
Tyler Confrey-Maloney, who earned a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering from NC State in 2014, is a founder and chief executive of Undercover Colors. He said the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program served as his introduction to business and allowed him and his partners to work on their first prototype.
“It was hard work, but I saw that I could apply my education to create something meaningful – something that could change someone’s life. When I realized this, it became more than a class. It became a passion, and later, a business,” Confrey-Maloney said.
The alumnus said the most fundamental skill of the 21st century is the ability to learn new things quickly, and that’s why it’s so important that NC State — and its alumni and friends — support entrepreneurship at a high level.
“Good entrepreneurs smell change first and figure out how to adapt to it before anyone else,” Confrey-Maloney said. “I don’t think there is a more important skill we could be teaching today.”
Miller said private support allows students to explore new ideas that could turn out to be revolutionary. But he doesn’t just advocate for philanthropy. Miller also is a donor to NC State and a member of the Chancellor’s Circle and the College of Engineering’s Dean’s Circle.
“I believe in what we do here,” he said. “We are entrusted with approximately 34,000 of the brightest young men and women from around North Carolina and around the world. During our time with them, we need to do everything that we possibly can to help them prepare to be successful. Not just in going out and getting jobs, but in truly being leaders, coming up with new ideas and doing things that change the world.”