Lax Conference offers a style of entrepreneurship for everyone

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Interested in new media? Bicycles? Social entrepreneurship? What about just hanging out with interesting alumni? The eighth annual Jonathan R. Lax ’71 Conference on Entrepreneurship this Sunday offers all of these options and more.

Director of Alumni Relations Lisa Lee ’81 thinks that the three panels offered this year will be of particular interest to students, including “one focusing on global business and global entrepreneurship and one focusing on new media… and the opportunities that creates for people who understand it.” The media panel will include everyone from John Hammond ’82, a senior director at Sony BMG Music Entertainment, to Jonah Gold ’04, the first full-time employee of The Electric Sheep Company, which processes the financial transactions within Second Life.

The third panel is something entirely new for the conference, a case study of a business decision currently being faced by Jagath Wanninayake ’96. Wanninayake is the co-founder and CEO of Clarix LLC, a company which provides a suite of e-clinical software applications to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Lee explained, “they do the infrastructure that enables biotech firms to take their products to market… they help manage the data analysis that you need in your clinical trials.”

During the case study panel, attendees will have the chance to hear about a decision Clarix is currently making and will be able to make their own suggestions. The idea for the case study came from Lee, wrote Wanninayake, who “thought that doing a case study on a current issue facing my company would be an interesting opportunity to expose the conference participants to a real life dilemma faced by entrepreneurs.”

The most popular part of the conference has consistently been the roundtables, where students and alumni gather into small groups to talk about a business issue. Lee explains that these are popular because “they’re a structured place… where alumni and students become peers.” This year, topics include consulting, product innovation, entrepreneurship inside large companies, and social entrepreneurship with Theresa Williamson ’97, who founded a nonprofit that links grassroots community groups in Brazil.

Keynote speaker Cheung Kwai Kong ’86, who co-invented the world’s first super-bright LED bicycle safety light, will be “talking about the role of entrepreneurs in shaping our world.” The company he founded because the leading cycling lighting company in the world within a year, and was purchased by Easton-Bell Sports in 1995. Today Kwai heads the helmet brands Giro and Bell and continues to design innovative products for athletes.

According to Lee, “over half the people who come to this conference are alumni… they want to continue learning throughout their lifetimes, and Swarthmore is a place they look to for that.” She continued, “this conference is the only one I can think of right now that is not purely academic… it’s a way for us to bring back people who’ve gone into the private sector world.

The alumni also “love the chance to interact with students,” and the conference is a great place for networking. Lee knows several students who have kept up with relationships with people that they’ve met at the Lax Conference.

Assistant Director of Career Services Laura Sibson agreed. She encouraged students to go because “it’s worthwhile to consider how some Swarthmore alumni have chosen to parlay their education into something they didn’t consider.” For her “it’s always interesting to see what alumni paths look like… it might seem odd from the outside, but a student could study philosophy here and end up running a company.”

Alumni are also inspired. Wanninayake wrote that “I attended the first Lax Conference in 1999 and was very impressed with the talk that Carl Russo [’79, president of telecommunications company Calix] gave that year. I think it was very inspiring in making some of the decisions I’ve made since.” An economics major, Wanninayake knew that he would be doing something in the area of business and entrepreneurship while still at Swarthmore, and although “there wasn’t a forum to really explore entrepreneurship at the time… that didn’t really discourage me and some like-minded Swatties in getting together and hashing various ideas out.”

Lee thinks that no matter what your major, “Swarthmore is good training for the kinds of creativity and forward-thinking that characterizes entrepreneurs… Swarthmore students take an idea, they learn about it, and they run with it… they’re natural entrepreneurs.” Students may be heartened to see how many of the speakers have parlayed philosophy and English degrees into successful business careers.

Even if you know nothing about business, Sibson stressed that the conference “is a great chance to hang with Swatties… even if you don’t know what you want to be doing it’ll be interesting just to talk to these people.”

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