Business & Government

System, University Leadership Brainstorm With Top Aggie Business Leaders On Furthering Entrepreneurship At Texas A&M

A recent gathering on the topic of innovation was hosted by Halliburton.
By Lesley Henton, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications January 24, 2024

Texas A&M University President Mark Welsh and Halliburton CEO Jeff Miller '88
Texas A&M University President Mark Welsh and CEO of Halliburton Jeff Miller ’88.

Laura McKenzie/Texas A&M Division of Marketing and Communications


Leaders from The Texas A&M University System, its flagship university and Halliburton recently were joined by Aggie former students — esteemed figures among the world’s top businesses — for a daylong session on the future of entrepreneurship at Texas A&M.

The gathering, hosted at the Houston headquarters of global energy company Halliburton, was titled “Shaping the Future of Entrepreneurship at Texas A&M: A Collaborative Vision.” The event was designed to open discussions among key stakeholders about how the university can grow entrepreneurship across disciplines. Around 50 attendees watched presentations and discussed creating an “entrepreneurial hub” on campus to support hands-on learning, cross-pollination of disciplines and real-world impact for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp took the opportunity to brag about students and faculty.

“There are three things that all of these universities that are really good at entrepreneurship and commercialization have in common, and those are really good students, lots of research and great commercialization,” said Sharp, who shared the room with several system officials, including Regents David Baggett, Jay Graham and Michael Plank. “I think we’re better at those three things than any of those universities are.”

On the research side, Sharp said the United States Space Force had recently chosen Texas A&M to lead an initiative to advance in-space operations, calling it a testament to the university’s leadership in innovation.

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp addressing attendees
Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp addressing attendees.

Laura McKenzie/Texas A&M Division of Marketing and Communications


Texas A&M President Mark A. Welsh III served as a panelist in a presentation titled “Investing in our University and Texas.” Joining him were Jennifer McFerrin-Bohner — daughter of Texas A&M benefactors Dorothy and Artie R. McFerrin ’65 and a driving force behind the event —and Halliburton CEO Jeff Miller ’88.

“I hope we see entrepreneurship and innovation kind of like fraternal twins,” Welsh told the audience. “They’re different things in my mind. Innovators come up with new ways of solving immediate problems, or new technology to solve longer-term problems. Entrepreneurs tend to see the gap in capability that exists. They see where there isn’t something and then find a way with their own innovative skills to create a solution for it …There are some practical parts of this that we have to think through. But there is no reason that we can’t be the number one entrepreneurial school in the country.”

Jennifer McFerrin-Bohner and Tyson Voelkel, president of The Texas A&M Foundation. Voelkel moderated the "Leadership Panel: Investing in Our University and Texas."
Jennifer McFerrin-Bohner participates on the “Leadership Panel: Investing in Our University and Texas,” moderated by Tyson Voelkel (right), president of The Texas A&M Foundation.

Laura McKenzie/Texas A&M Division of Marketing and Communications


McFerrin-Bohner said she and her family are hoping to help create a “robust ecosystem for Texas A&M that would be inclusive of students — all working on projects together — with faculty, different startups and bringing in industry to solve real-world problems.” She highlighted the importance of having programs available to everybody across campus, and “with lots of faculty involvement.”

‘Entrepreneurship Is A Team Sport’

Mike Francis '06
Mike Francis ’06, CEO and co-founder of NanoTech, who served as conference emcee.

Laura McKenzie/Texas A&M Division of Marketing and Communications

A consistent theme woven throughout the day emphasized the importance of collaboration. The cooperative spirit extends between students, faculty, staff, industry leaders, former students, donors and other stakeholders, all of whom are aligned to further entrepreneurship on campus.

“Entrepreneurship is a team sport,” said Mike Francis ’06, who emceed the day’s events. He earned his bachelor’s degree in information and operations management from Mays Business School and now serves as CEO and co-founder of NanoTech, which produces fireproofing coating. “Our alumni network, our faculty are the best team on the planet. That’s why I believe with all my heart that Texas A&M will be the number one university for entrepreneurship in the U.S.”

Francis said that although Miller — who has been Halliburton’s CEO since 2017 — is not the company’s founder, he’s an exemplary leader who innovates from within.

Miller, who earned his MBA at Mays Business School, said growing entrepreneurship at Texas A&M will call for the breaking down of silos. He spoke about Halliburton Labs, the company’s business accelerator where external firms are engaged in research and development, with a significant focus on the future of energy.

“Texas A&M leads in so many areas, that we ought to lead in entrepreneurship … It’s right in our wheelhouse. I think there are a lot of great things being done in the colleges, such as engineering,” Miller said. Besides having its fair share of Aggies on staff, Halliburton supports education at A&M, including the Halliburton Engineering Global Programs, which provide study abroad opportunities for engineering students.

The ‘R’ In R&D

As a Tier 1 research institution — the first university in Texas to invest $1 billion annually in expenditures — Texas A&M students and faculty conduct research in the lab and in the field, spanning every continent. This research often translates into real-world solutions.

Dr. Elsa Murano, director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture and Development and former president of Texas A&M, discussed the importance of research as it relates to entrepreneurship.

“You have basic research that’s done in the lab to develop new varieties of crops for example, or to identify why certain microorganisms are able to grow in certain environments, and then maybe cause disease. That happens in the lab, it’s where it begins,” Murano said. “But then research is transformed into the application orientation, and that’s where institutes like Borlaug come into play. We engage with the faculty who are the ones who come up with the solutions, and we implement them in developing countries around the world to incredible results. We take that knowledge from the lab to the farmer.”

The Entrepreneurial Faculty Panel: Crafting Future Entrepreneurs featuring Blake Petty, Dr. Janet Parish, Dr. Amit Dhingra and Jim Donnell
“The Entrepreneurial Faculty Panel: Crafting Future Entrepreneurs,” moderated by Blake Petty, executive director of the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship and featuring Dr. Janet Parish, clinical professor of marketing and director of Reynolds and Reynolds Sales Leadership Institute; Dr. Amit Dhingra, professor and head of the Department of Horticultural Sciences; and Jim Donnell, professor of practice and director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program.

Laura McKenzie/Texas A&M Division of Marketing and Communications


Educating And Supporting Future Entrepreneurs

Ensuring students are well-prepared to become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs was a focus of panels featuring Aggie business leaders, as well as staff and faculty leading entrepreneurship programs. Helping students establish an entrepreneurial mindset is critical, participants agreed. Murano, who was on the business leaders panel, spoke of these critical-thinking skills and open-minded approaches to solving problems.

“The entrepreneurial mindset is so important, in many aspects of life. The most obvious, of course, is when someone is thinking about starting a business and that’s great,” Murano said. “But it actually plays a huge role in other parts of life. Whether you’re an administrator or manager, whatever business or place you might be, entrepreneurship is a mindset where you try to think outside the box, you try to figure out new ways to address a challenge or solve a problem, to achieve a goal. You’re having other people come in and give their ideas. You’re talking about those ideas, analyzing them, and because of that collaboration, your success potential increases tremendously.”

Jim Donnell, director at the Meloy Texas A&M Engineering Entrepreneurship Program, discussed what his program does to grow that mindset in its students. “Through our recently endowed program, we introduce engineering students to curricular and extracurricular experiences, and we add the entrepreneurship element,” he said. “And we are graduating some of the best and the brightest.”

Francis said the landscape for innovation, particularly in technology, is changing so quickly, educators have to develop students’ leadership skills through entrepreneurship.

“Gen Z is here,” he said. “I’ve done talks across different colleges for the last 10 years. Before I start each one of my talks, I ask how many people want to be an entrepreneur. Ten years ago, you maybe get four or five hands. I did one a couple of months ago; there’s about 500 freshmen engineers in the room. We asked the question, ‘Who wants to be an entrepreneur?’ Well, about 400 of them raised their hands.”

Francis said he hopes the day’s events further the conversation about entrepreneurship at Texas A&M among those who attended, as well as the broader Aggie community.

“We have the best network on the planet,” he said. “We have the faculty, we have the students, we have the momentum, and we have this Maroon wave of the network. The Aggie Network is what is going to propel us.”

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