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Focused on the Future

Ag entrepreneurship focus attracts young Nebraskans for Engler program

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By Dan Moser, IANR News

Nebraska communities long have competed to lure outside business and industry to the state, but increasingly they're realizing their best chance for growth may be to tap into their natives' entrepreneurial spirit.

Paul Engler, a University of Nebraska graduate and Texas cattleman, certainly believes that. In 2010 he contributed $20 million from the Paul F. and Virginia J. Engler Foundation to create the Paul F. Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, which will fund new student scholarships, internships, undergraduate research, camps, a capstone course and venture capital fund, and an endowed chair in agribusiness entrepreneurship. Engler hopes to encourage rural Nebraskans to develop and grow businesses within their communities.

Mark Gustafson believes that, too. The fifth-generation Nebraska farmer is a longtime advocate for rural Nebraska, agriculture and education. He's also the first director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship program and holder of the endowed chair.

"Greater success will come from encouraging individuals to develop and grow entrepreneurial businesses within their communities," Gustafson said. "The Engler program does that by giving students the skills and experience they will need to succeed in agribusiness in Nebraska. That's not only going to benefit those students, but also the community and the state as a whole."

And the Engler students believe it as well. They include Ashley Nunnenkamp of Sutton, who became interested in entrepreneurship in high school when she ran a cut-flower business.

Nunnenkamp is one of eight College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources students to receive inaugural scholarships from the program.

"I've always had a passion for entrepreneurship," Nunnenkamp said. "Entrepreneurship can give kids an opportunity to come back home and run their own businesses."

Nunnenkamp imagines not just running her own business some day, but serving as an educator and mentor to other young people interested in entrepreneurship.

Chase Holoubek of David City, another Engler scholar, has had three internships already.

"I see opportunities out there. I've always wanted to be my own boss," Holoubek said.

Several of the Engler scholars come from family farms – and imagine returning there, but with inspiration and ideas to build businesses on the side.

Evan Ibach, animal science freshman from Sumner, is working with his dad to transition their operation to branded beef. He said he's hoping to get some insights into niche-business possibilities.

Gustafson said this generation of students in general – and the Engler students particularly - seem wide open to career possibilities beyond the traditional route of going to work for someone else. Some may go back to their family farms, but with ideas for new, value-added ventures, he said. Others may find their way into careers as crop consultants or marketing experts. The Engler scholars also take entrepreneurship courses offered in the College of Business Administration that add to their entrepreneurial skills and introduce them to entrepreneurs from across the state.

Wherever they go, Gustafson is excited to hear these students echo Engler's dream of revitalizing rural Nebraska from within.

Paul F. Engler

Watch a video of the Paul F. Engler gift announcement