Jerry Ross is the President of the National Entrepreneur Center and SBA’s 2022 State of Florida Small Business Advocate of the Year! His honors include Orlando Business Journal CEO of the Year, and successful entrepreneur enterprises such as SkyTracker of Florida and Maverick Magazine. He helped found the Center for American Entrepreneurship in Washington, DC and guided the launch of Global Entrepreneurship Week 2022 at the NEC in Orlando.
Join us in listening to this entrepreneurial leadership voice of Orlando with international scope in this oral history interview with Jerry Ross.
I’m Jerry Ross and I was born in a small town on the Ohio River called Portsmouth, Ohio and it’s a very small town and I grew up in a big family there.
Listen: Part I of V (16:25)
What did your parents do for a living?
Well, just about anything they could. My mom, there were eleven kids in the family, and my dad ultimately was an auditor of Security Central National Bank, and my mom worked at a hospital, she worked at a shoe factory, she baby sat kids, and so, they did a lot of things. But they kept the family together and kept us moving in the right direction.
Did you know your grandparents?
I did, but I was one of the younger ones and so, I knew my mom’s mother Emma Bennett, but she was much older and was in assisted living at the time. And so, we would take her dinner about every other night. So whenever we got up from supper we would take a plate over to my grandmother. And so, that’s how I remember her. But I have lots of great pictures, too.
Do you know what they did for a living or how they came to this country?
I think they came, we’re Scotch Irish on my dad’s side and they came through Pennsylvania, Zanesville, Ohio and then down to Portsmouth. And my mother’s family was out of Kentucky and I’m not sure exactly where their heritage went back but I think it was British.
What was a typical Sunday like for you growing up? Did you go to visit your grandmother on Sunday?
Sometimes. First of all it was Church. And so, my mom would bang on the banister to get everybody out of bed and we would go to Church. My dad sometimes would direct the choir at Church. My mom I felt like had robo arms because she could reach all the way down the pew and pinch me in the shoulder to make me be quiet. But we grew up, we’re Catholic and we grew up through the Catholic grade schools. Sunday dinner was always important. Dinner in my family was very important. And so, you didn’t miss dinner. You were there around the dinner table. And that was where we caught up what was happening with everybody in the family. Because there was always a lot going on. But we all had chores.
But Sunday was our day to maybe watch some football. We played a lot of sports out in the alley behind our house. And so, many years after we had all left and when my dad passed away, we went back to that alley and found the home plate that was painted and the bases that were painted around. And we still had the basketball hoop up on the garage. So it was great fun to go back and visit many years after that to see. We had the whiffle ball rules where if it hits this garage it’s out. But if it hits this garage and you catch it off the roof it’s an out. So it was a lot of those rules that you make up as kids and everyone in the neighborhood was part of your team.
And so, it sounds like it was a connected neighborhood.
Very. Everyone played outside. A lot of times the houses, our house, didn’t have air conditioning, and so when it got hot, you were either outside or maybe playing in the sprinkler. And so, we played all kinds of tag and when it got dark you would hear different houses calling their kids in and usually that was time for dinner and homework.
What were some of the chores you had to do?
My specific chore was to load and unload the dishwasher. And so, before our breakfast I would set the table. And my brother Mike would help cook and my brother John would straighten up, make the beds before school. And so, we all had our chores so that by the time we left for school, the house was in pretty good shape. If you didn’t get your dirty clothes into the laundry room, they didn’t get cleaned. That was mom’s rule: If they’re not here, they don’t go in the washer. And so, we all had chores. We had outdoor chores to do: weeding the garden and my older brother would cut the grass and my next brother would edge and trim. So it was really a team effort all the way along.
Did you have an outside job later in your teen years or did you focus on school and then later get an outside job?
Well, I laugh about being an entrepreneur because, well, we all learned how to hustle pretty young. And so, we all had our jobs at the house, but ultimately my older brother would get grass cutting jobs and so, we were all part of the grass cutting crew. The family station wagon would have a lawn mower sticking out the back. And, you know, my older brother would run the lawn mowers and my middle brothers would edge and I would sweep. And so, we had quite a grass cutting business. At times in the north, we had a snow shoveling business. Our neighbors would say, “Come on down and keep my walks cleared.” And so, it always felt like we had some kind of family business going on.
And then, my older brothers would work around the city. My brother Pat worked at Krogers and I eventually worked at McDonalds. And so, that was one of my first jobs outside the family. And ultimately, when I got out of college, I was able to come back and work at McDonalds during school breaks and the summer. I worked for the city slinging asphalt off the back of the asphalt trucks which was a great learning experience. And then, the hardest job I ever had in my life was working on a produce farm which I did a couple of summers, where they would ship out 900 bags of corn a day to Kroger warehouses. And I hoed all day long for about ten hours in the sun and never got to the end of my row. So that’s how big the farm was. I kept looking for, I thought there’s got to be an easier job on this farm. So I worked in irrigation. I worked on the corn tables. I eventually road in the semi-tractor trailer and unloaded the trucks in the Kroger warehouses. None of those jobs were easy. So I have a huge respect for anyone that’s farming…
You mentioned college, so you did go to college?
I went to a small school in northern Ohio, Heidelberg University. All of my brothers because we played sports all the time were very good at sports. And so, my brother John had a scholarship to play football at the University of Toledo. My brother Mike had a scholarship to play at Indiana. But I was kind of the runt of the litter and so when I looked at those schools I thought I would get killed if I went there to play football. And Heidelberg was a Division 3 school that said, “We’d love to have you come and play football here.” So I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer. And so I said, “Sure.” And I went to this small school in Tiffin, Ohio and we had a terrible football team and that’s why I got to play which was great fun. And so, I only played for about a year and a half there. And then I said, you know I’m not going to be a professional football player. And while I enjoyed that I had lots of other interests, too. One of those was stage.
Heidelberg University Speech and Theater Department
So I went – I always got in trouble in school for talking. And I thought, they have a major for people in speech and you talk. I need to explore that. So I went to the Speech Department and that was Speech and Theater. Loved the Theater Department and loved learning how to communicate. And so, I became a speech major and I auditioned for some plays and said I need to explore this interest as well. The same kind of team spirit in doing drama and putting together other productions that was very similar to football with lots of practice and lots of dedication and lots of great professional people that had a dedication to their craft. So I loved the time I spent in the Theater Department. And then I thought, well, I don’t want to go to New York and starve as a starving actor, more a waiter. And I thought what theater do I know that makes enough money? So I probably should learn how to do the business of theater. So I kept getting jobs… I got a job for the manager of the box office for the theater and that led me to being the manager of the radio station. And so, I was the manager of the college radio station which was rock and roll, a powerful ten watt station, that, you know, maybe got to the edge of town.
WTTF FM in Tiffin
But that was a great opportunity to learn leadership and management of a volunteer organization. I got to hone my skills on the radio as a communicator. And so, then I got hired by the commercial station in town. I worked my way through college on WTTF FM in Tiffin, Ohio. Great experience, great mentors there. I never met a whole lot of people who weren’t willing to help someone. So I just asked. So I spent some time on the radio station in Tiffin and all those experiences from college, working through college or in the classroom are all things that have kind of come together throughout my career. People say, how do you know to do that? And I say, “You know, many years ago I had the opportunity.” And that’s what I think a smaller college gave me was an opportunity to try a lot of different things. And some of those that I realized I’m not very good at this. I need to do something else. And other things where I, you know, I have a real interest in that and that helped me pursue that a little further. So I still do occasional theater productions at my church. And so, I get drafted, you know, when they have a part for an old guy.
And that’s here in Orlando?
Yeah, the church that I go to is here in Orlando. I did some community theater. And, it’s just a love, a hobby that I enjoy. But I use that skill every day when I get up in front of a roomful of people. And, it’s something I learned so many years ago and never thought I would use. I was like well, that was fun, and what’s next? I got to earn a living so you go off and do things. But all of those experiences that make you who you are.
We talked about some of the activities that you did in the summer… when was the first time you went to Disney? So, it may have been as an adult?
It was. Because we didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t eat out a lot. And so, my dad would take the last two weeks of August every year as a vacation. And, you know, sometimes we’d go to visit family and sometimes we would just spend time at the river or go to visit the lake.
But the first time I went to Disney was on my honeymoon. And so I didn’t realize that when I took my honeymoon and we decided we’re going to go – we actually went to Anna Maria Island first because some friends of our family had a connection there that we could stay. So we came down and spent some time at Anna Maria Island and the plan was to go to Disney as we flew back to Ohio. And so, we visited Disney as part of our honeymoon package and we got to eat at the Empress Lilly restaurant which at the time was the real, creme of the crop. And we were just kids saying, “We’re going to do it right.” And I didn’t know it at the time, that we would be back as residents of Orlando. And I wore flip flops around Disney. And so, when I got on the plane I had blisters all over my feet from the flip flops and walking around Disney.
But one of the memories that we both share is at the time we were getting on one of the Disney buses and it was late at night we were coming back from dinner and there was no one else on the bus. And so, the bus driver said, “EPCOT is about to open. Would you mind if I practiced my EPCOT script on you?” And we said, “No.” And so, EPCOT wasn’t opened yet and we got a preview of what it would be like from the bus driver. And we fell in love, you know that Orlando was just such an open, caring place. And everywhere we went hospitality. And so, I didn’t realize it at the time, here we are. We’ve been here 32 years. This is home.
Listen: Part II of V (14:00)
That’s such a fantastic, story! Thank you… so how did you come, well I understand from what I read you were recruited by the National Entrepreneur Center. Do I have that right?
Well, kind of. So, let me catch you up. And then we’ll go from there. So we flew back to Ohio. My wife at the time was getting her Master’s degree from Ohio State. And so, she was teaching English at Ohio State University. And we were Buckeye fans and still are. I was working at Ohio Bell and AT&T. So when I got out of college I was hired by the Bell System and it was right before the divestiture when they broke up the Bell System. And in that chaos, in breaking up the world’s largest company, was a great opportunity for a young kid. That said, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” So I got some great opportunities to learn from great people at Ohio Bell. I eventually worked at AT&T for a period of time and then for Ameritech which was the deregulated company. And so, it was a great experience there. My wife began as a teaching assistant at Ohio State and I went to a software company that was in the startup area. And I said, “I don’t know much about software.” They said, “We know about you and we can teach you the other stuff.”
And so, the software company was a very talented bunch of folks. And I was very lucky to be part of that where I could learn from a new set of leadership. A lot of what I do today I learned from Gold System Software because they were innovative entrepreneurs that provided a great product. So eventually we went public and so, that was an education in itself, an IPO. And I said, I’ve really got to get back to my entrepreneurial roots. You know, I’m really an entrepreneur. I’ve learned great things here at the company about measurements and metrics and how to do things that I didn’t know as an entrepreneur.
Starting an Orlando Business
And a friend of mine at the same company had decided he was moving to Orlando to start a company. And he said, “I need some help.” Because I really wanted to get back to being an entrepreneur. And at the time, my wife had finished her Master’s degree and we moved down to Orlando in ’89 to help my friend start a business. And by 1990 we were penniless. We’d lost everything. And we couldn’t work any harder. I was working 18 hours a day and we had great employees who were doing everything we asked them to do. And it was a time of recession. And so, we closed the business and we were cash flowing which meant we were paying all our bills but we just weren’t making money to make a go of it. And so, that was a really hard time. But I prayed about that. And we were very confident that we were in the place that we were supposed to be. And so, we kind of throw around and say, what’s next? And so, I was sweeping the floors at the Orlando Arena after a Rod Stewart concert to pay my rent; and that ages me back to 1990. But I knew I’d be back because I had my family. I had my health. I had my education. I had support. I had my faith. And so, we were looking around saying what are we supposed to learn from this?
The Lighting Business
My wife got hired at Seminole State College as an English instructor and I was hired by a company who was retrenching back to Atlanta at the time because of the recession. And they said, “We need someone who can get us out of Orlando. We’ve expanded too far.” So I helped them sell their real estate. We sold their billboards to 3M which became Clear Channel and they had a little lighting business that they didn’t like. They didn’t feel like they were making enough money from that and they wanted me to move to Atlanta. And I said, “I’m not leaving Orlando. I love Orlando!” And my wife loved her job at Seminole State and the people she was working with. And so, they said, “No, you need to move to Atlanta.” And I said, “No, I’m not.” And they said, “Well, what can we do?” And I said, “Well, you want to get out of the lighting business. I’ll get you out of the lighting business if you let me buy one. Because I think I can fix this.” And they said, “No. We really need you to move to Atlanta.” And I said, “I can fix this for you.” And they said, “No.” And they said, “Tell you what. You get us out of the lighting business. You can buy one.” And that was in 1991. And that was the little search lights that you see at car dealerships that go around in the sky.
Sky Tracker of Florida
Have you seen the lights that went around in the sky at Pleasure Island? Those are mine. And the lights in the sky at Universal? Those are mine. The Islands of Adventure lighthouse there, I worked on. We provided the lights to NASA that lights on the shuttle on the launch pad at night. And so, we took this business that another company didn’t want. We looked at it differently. I said, “We can make this work.” And that was in ’91. In ’93 we opened an office in Atlanta. We opened an office in Charlotte. By 1995 we were one of the largest suppliers of neon lighting to the theme parks, to the concert business, and to the film business. In 1998 there was an interest from a New York stock exchange company to buy me out. And so, they were in the film production business. They use neon lighting to project on film. So they knew a lot about neon lighting and we knew a lot about pivoting into markets to make it work.
Learning from New York Stock Exchange Companies
And so, we did Super Bowls and we provided equipment on the tour for Shania Twain, and Billy Joe, and Elton John, and the Dixie Chicks. I’d say we were an equal opportunity event taker. And so, anyone that could pay, we’re going to supply the lights. We got into the film business. So “Unlawful Entry”, and “The Bodyguard”, and “Earth to the Moon”, we provided a lot of lighting effects for them. And we employed a lot of people and had a lot of fun. We had great clients like Disney. It gave us an opportunity as a small business to learn their business. And so, I had an office in Hollywood. I had an office in Atlanta. In Hollywood we did the film business. In Atlanta we did the concert business. And in Orlando we did NASA, the military, and the theme park business. And so, it was a great opportunity as a small business to learn from those New York Stock Exchange companies that said, “Here’s how we grow a business in the film business. In fact, I have a picture, one of the gentleman that I got to work with at that time was Marlowe Pichel, who had many patents from controlling the light to drive in movies to controlling the light of a search light. But also, the light that is used to light film, project film onto the wall in movie theaters. And so, when he was recognized for a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy, he invited my wife and I to the Academy Awards to sit at his table. This is not the one where they give the acting awards, this is one where they give the technical awards. And so, my wife and I were able to walk down the red carpet and join Marlowe Pichel who was an amazing patent holder, an amazing engineer that I learned a lot from in the lighting business. Because I didn’t know a lot about lighting. I just knew that we could make that business work because sometimes you have to look at things a little differently. And that’s what an entrepreneur’s all about. They look at things a little differently.
UCF Small Business Development Center
So I finished my time with them and I said, “It’s been great but I’ve fulfilled my contract. And it was a great opportunity for my people because they got things that I could never provide for them as a small business. They were able to get benefits and things like that I could never provide. So when I finished my time there, I called it coming home, but really I just got off the plane. Because I was on a plane a lot. And I looked around and said, “What’s next?” And at the time I heard that the Small Business Development Center at UCF needed a junior marketing counselor. And I thought well, I’m not doing a lot right now so maybe I could help there. So I went to work at the UCF Small Business Development Center because the Small Business Development Center meets clients where they are; moves them forward. And so it was a great opportunity for me to take some of that experience, that calliope of experience that I had and help other businesses. Ironically, that was the first group that came to the National Entrepreneur Center when it was formed in 2003. And so, when they opened the downtown Small Business Development Center downtown in 2003, it was the first group to inhabit that. And so, I joke and I say, “I came to the Entrepreneur Center as a junior marketing counselor, but I came back as President”. But I told them at the time I want to help and I’ll be here until I get my next idea and then I got to go.
And so, I got another idea about producing an international business magazine for the world. Because the basis of small businesses are the same everywhere in the world. Now cultural pieces change, different economies impact, but the basis of business are the same. So I spoke in Cairo, Egypt. I spoke in Medellin, Colombia. I’ve spoken in Istanbul. Because leadership is the same. Management is the same. Marketing principals are the same whether you’re selling a part to Nassau or whether you’re selling a shish kabob on the street. The making principals are the same and there’s a real thirst for entrepreneurial information around the world. And it’s stuff that we here take that for granted. So we produce this little magazine that you can carry around. It was great fun! And so, I partnered with a lady who had helped me in the lighting business and been a vendor for me as a marketing and advertising person. And we said, “Why don’t we produce this magazine?” We produced Maverick business magazine and we began distributing it for free and making money off the ads. So we were a little ahead of our time because now lots of people do that.
“Business can unite the world.”
But at the same time, I was speaking in Cairo and I took these magazines to give away because people exchange gifts along the way. And so, I was joking with my partner because she was on deadline for the next issue while I was over enjoying Cairo. And so, I sent a picture with me reading the magazine in front of the sphinx and I said, “This is such an interesting issue, I might miss the sights.” And so, it was a joke. And so, she put it in the next issue and said, “Maverick Magazine is so interesting and it’s the right size that you can travel with. But be careful – you might miss the sights!” And people began sending in pictures of them reading my magazine all over the world… and so we started publishing those pictures and it just became a fun thing that we began doing because, you know, business can unite the world. If you’re doing business with other people you don’t shoot your customers. So, you know, I believe if we can concentrate on the good parts of doing business together that peace can break out.
So I did that for a while and I bought some more houses and we flipped some properties. And then I got a call that said the Entrepreneur Center was looking for a leader. And that they had been doing a national search and that my name surfaced as a possibility. And if I would come and just talk to them about the position. And so, I said, “I’ll come. I’ll talk to you. I’m busy.” And halfway through that I thought, I’ve been preparing all my life for the job. I can fix this. I love to fix things. I’m a turnaround guy. And so, I said, “Look, I can fix this, but I’m not staying.” And that was 16 years ago. So I’m still having fun. So that’s how I got here. Long story, but each piece of that story is important in what we do here today.
Listen: Part III of V (11:16)
If we could go back for just a moment, when you went to other countries what was the reception that you got? Were they absolutely thrilled because, I think, American entrepreneurship is somewhat famous… was that the type of reception you got?
It’s always mixed. You know, there is a group that says they’re coming from America and they’re capitalists and they’ve done this before. And so, there is a piece of that, that people say I really want to get every piece of information. Colombia… Mexico, people were riding their bicycles to come and hear about entrepreneurship. And each of those places there’s a group that says this is really valuable and I want this and I’m thirsty. And then, there’s also, the same crowd that’s here in America. There’s a piece of the crowd that shows up and says, “I’m not sure if this is for me, but I’m willing to listen.” And then there’s the group that shows up and says, “How much of this is really true?” And, I think, you need to have those skeptics in every room. And so, specifically in Medellin, Colombia, they have 13 entrepreneur centers in Medellin alone. 20 years before that it was Pablo Escobar, you know, ruling with violence. And they transformed that country with entrepreneurship. You know, opportunities for people to own things and that’s how you break the cycle of poverty. And so, they were very thirsty for entrepreneurial education. But I learned more from them then they learned from me.
Microenterprise in Medellin
Microenterprise, you know that they were saying, “I can bake cookies and sell them in the neighborhood, and embroidered things, or knit things.” And so, I was visiting these entrepreneur centers and people were showing up to learn about all these things we could do in America. And I was there saying, “But I’m learning more about microenterprise and how you can change an economy.” And so, one of the issues was, if you’ve ever seen Narcos on Netflix, you know, they open a scene with a picture of Medellin. It’s like they took New York and squished it down into a bowl. And the bowl, the valley of Medellin is very steep. People would have a hard time getting off the mountain with all the switch bags and getting to work. And so, there was no way for them to get to work and they were starving and they needed support. And Escobar offered them that. He said, “I’ll give you money to buy food, but you have to protect me.” And so, there was a real need there. And so, they put a ski lift up the mountain and they connected it to the transportation center. And so, people could get off the mountain to the transportation center and get to work and get a job. And then, they put entrepreneur centers in and then they built a beautiful library at the top of the mountain. So the people that had education and money would take the ski lift up and see the poverty that they never knew existed. And so, it was a fascinating study in how you transform not only a culture, but a country. And so that was a real learning experience for me.
The Culture Piece of Business
In Egypt, I could have told you Arab Spring was coming way before it came because 600 business people showed up at an event. And they asked great questions and they were interested in how do I do this entrepreneur thing? But, you have to be certain that cultures differ. So I got a question, “Is it okay to pay a bribe?” I don’t know. You know, in your culture that might be acceptable. I don’t know how business is done in your culture. In our culture, we call it a tip and it comes at the end of the meal not at the beginning. But, that’s my culture. And so, the culture piece of business is different everywhere, even in the U.S.
Sharing Best Practices
You know how we do business in Orlando is a lot different than how we do business in New York. You know our culture piece changes as well. And so, we’ve had a lot of people visit us to look at our Entrepreneur Center and say, “How do we do this in our community, but also in our country?” And I say, “You can do it. This will work. But it’s going to look different than this because your culture is different and our culture is different. And so, we have to be careful that we don’t arrive in a neighborhood and say, “This is how you do it.” Because that needs to come from the neighborhood or it needs to come from the city or the county or the community that you’re in and sometimes we forget that. We’re very prideful of what we’ve done and we go to another community or even another country and try to tell them how to do it. And I can’t do that. I have to say, “Tell me how you do it and we’ll share with you some of the best practices that we’ve used here in our community and in our culture.”
The organic principles… but then also the principles of business, all of these coming together… I was curious though, you mentioned the idea of the model, The National Entrepreneur Center as a model… from my understanding this started as a public- private partnership and yet it’s grown quite a lot… How did you do that? Is it applying for grants or how does this come about?
It’s not about the money and it’s not about the real estate, and that’s what were trying to tell sponsors. You know, it’s easy to say that now, 16 years down the road. But it starts and ends with collaboration. And collaboration is different than cooperation. You know, we can cooperate and say, “Yeah, I know you and you know me, and we’re good.” Collaboration is saying, “What can I do to help you be more successful?” And you saying, “But wait, how can I help you be more successful?” And so, what made this work was that our community is one of the most collaborative communities I’ve ever been in in my life. People are willing to help you. People are willing to reach out to you. And, you know, I’m one of eleven kids and I grew up with “That’s mine and no that’s yours and you better share or I can fix it.” And so, it starts with collaboration. And, I think, after 9/11 – we’re a tourist destination, we got 70 million visitors last year. And so, we are a tourist destination and tourism is a machine that drives our economy. And people, were afraid to fly after 9/11. And so, our small business community was really hurting, but it took the leadership of our community. It was visionary for Al Weiss of Walt Disney World, Mayor Crotty from Orange County, and Dr. Hitt from University of Central Florida and ultimately Mayor Dyer from the City of Orlando that said, “What are we going to do to help these small businesses? We have got to help our businesses survive.”
Orange County and the City of Orlando
Fast forward, the same conversation during the pandemic. The difference was during the pandemic of Covid 19 we had the Entrepreneur Center. You know, if you think about that idea back in 2001 it was revolutionary. And these three organizations didn’t just say we ought to do it. They could have not done it and no one would have known. But, they said, not only are we going to do it, we’re going to put some money behind it to say, “Let’s make it happen”. And they partnered with SBA. And so, it was public and private. So it was Orange County and the City of Orlando with a private company, Disney with the University all working together. And so, getting those people in a room is impossible. Getting them to each put up money and sign a five year agreement was a miracle.
An Entrepreneur for the Entrepreneur Center
And so, I start with the visionary leadership of the community. If they hadn’t said, “Let’s do this.” It wouldn’t have happened. The SBA was restricted in what they could do to run an Entrepreneur Center. And it’s kind of an oxymoron to say, let’s take a government bureaucracy and put them in charge of an entrepreneur center. That wasn’t the best fit. And our community said, “How do we fix it?” And so, they said, “We need to bring in an entrepreneur to run the entrepreneur center.” And so, that’s when I arrived.
Listen: Part IV of V (18:05)
“We had a unity of purpose with a continuity of effort.”
But all the ground work, we talk about planting seeds around here. You know, seeds of an idea. All the work had been done. The center was established. The center was open and it was friendly. When I came, we said – and I stole this from Austin, Texas – when I was visiting there and talking to their community about how they have become such a driving economy. There was a gentleman that said, “We had a unity of purpose with a continuity of effort.” And I wrote it down and I went up afterwards and I said, “I’m taking that. It’s awesome. And I will give you credit the first 15 times and then it’s mine.” And we laughed.
Meeting Entrepreneurs and Moving Them Forward
So that’s what’s allowed us to grow. We said, “What is our unity of purpose? What is it that we can all decide and agree on? We’re going to do this.” And that was we’re going to meet entrepreneurs when they walk thru that door. We don’t care where they are from. They can be from out of town. They can be from out of state. We don’t care what they do. But, we’re going to meet them where they are and move them forward. And so, that became our unity of purpose not only for our funders but for our management board which is made up of the leaders of all the organizations that are here. And that was the easy part.
Continuity of Effort
And then we said, but the continuity of effort means we are going to do this until we’re successful not until it gets hard. And it got hard because it can not be about any one group all the time. And so, there’s a lot of different perspectives around our table. There’s lots of different views and lots of different egos. And we say, “We agree. We’re going to do what’s right for the entrepreneur and what’s best for the entrepreneur to move them ahead until we are successful and not until it gets hard.”
And so, we’ve had three different mayors that have all continued to support. I think we’ve had three different presidents of Disney that have all been willing to support. We’re working on our third or fourth president at UCF that’s been willing to support. And so, that continuity of effort. And part of it is that I have been here to provide continuity of effort for longer than I thought I would be.
And so, that’s number one then, that ultimately each of our nonprofit organizations only pay for their footprint of the office that their renting. And the community has provided everything in the infrastructure around them. And so, all of our nonprofits, their costs went down, but their exposure went up. And their ability went up because they weren’t worried about having to pay for servers, and conference rooms and training rooms that may only get used once or twice by the organization.
Part of growing your business is expanding your circle. And so, we would say, “I understand you’re here to get some free coaching from SCORE, but you are a black, women entrepreneur. Did you know about the African American Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Women Business Owners? And did you know the Small Business Development Center has an advisory board?” And they’re like no, I had no idea! And now we’ve expanded their circle.
And finally, that board which is made up of our funders who give us money to keep the doors open. Because if they didn’t get community funding, we’d have 16 nonprofits on the street. And they provide the funds for us to operate. But they also gave me the freedom to fail. And said, ” We know that there’s no manual that you can go to. And so, be entrepreneurial.” And part of that is a risky endeavor especially for lots of our funders to say, “You’re going to do what?” But we were able to do things that didn’t go right. There’s a lot of those. But we were able to try them without fear. Okay, that didn’t work. What about this?
It also enabled us to pivot quickly to provide whatever the community needed. 2007-2008 it was financial. During the pandemic, it was access to PPP funds. A couple of things that occurred that I would love to say, “I planned it. It was a strategic decision.” But it was not. It was something that happened organically, that you say, who knew? And yet you say, it was the right thing to do.
Hosting SBA Training for Hurricane Relief
When the hurricanes came through and I think it was Maria that hit Puerto Rico, it was the season when we had a hurricane a year and then a hurricane that hit Puerto Rico. The SBA needed a place to stage their training for all the people who would be manning the response centers. And so, these 16 organizations cleared their calendars. We opened our training rooms and we hosted all the SBA training for the people who would be shipping off to Naples, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Miami that needed to be trained. And so, the trucks would show up with all the training for disaster response centers.
Hosting SBA Training for Support Services in Disaster
And so, this became really a landing pad for support services in a time of disaster. And when we were about to wrap that up, the hurricane hit Puerto Rico and they said, “Okay, we’ll stay a little longer.” So, we found a place in the mall that one of the stores had moved out and we did host the SBA training for all those disaster response centers. And so, that was a way, it wasn’t just about business, it was more about supporting our community and the needs of our community. And yeah, our board allowed us the freedom to do the things that needed to be done in the community.
And that’s part of the secret to the partnership isn’t it?
It is. That we can be flexible. And we have the rules of the road. And sometimes I’m the umpire and I have to say you’re out. And sometimes I have to call strike three, but that’s part of our strength is that we have so many different ideas and different perspectives that we bring to the table so that we get it right. We don’t always get it right. But when we get it wrong we fix it and so it is part of our strength. But I think being fair and honest and transparent is good for all these organizations to see that we’re in this together and we are better together than we are individually. And we’ve proven that as a community.
Economic Impact of 14 to 1
We had an economic impact firm come in from Austin in 2016, I believe it was. And they spent about a month with us and they measure economic impact for a community for states and countries. And we said, “You don’t know us, we don’t know you. We think we’re doing a good job. How do we prove that?” And they spent about a month with us and when they left they said, “We can prove a 14 to 1 return to the community.” And so, for every dollar invested in our center, they could prove $14 of impact to the community…. So I just authorized to bring them back here in 2022 to say, things have changed. We’ve had Covid. We’ve had shutdowns. The mall has been struggling, that number is going to change. But we need to know what the number is, so we’re being honest and transparent in our impact.
Long Term Economic Growth of Orlando
But whenever you put 16 organizations under one roof and they share technology, they share phones, they share servers and rooms, there’s an impact just in that. But, I think, the true impact is when we look at the long term economic growth of Orlando. We’ve led the nation in job creation four years in a row prior to Covid. And I say that’s not a surprise that’s a strategy. Because our community was doing entrepreneurship before it was cool… our community’s been doing that for 20 years.
We owe that to the leaders of our community to recognize their commitment to doing this thing. And so, we’re just getting warmed up.
And I have this number right, I read that you’re now funded by 13 community investors.
We have 13 community investors and they can invest at different levels. We have many more than that that support programming and those kind of things. To be a sponsor of the National Entrepreneur Center, they have to make a commitment to say we’re not just going to invest one year, we’re going to invest for three years and that allows us to be a little more strategic than tactical. That allows them to have a seat on the board. And so, those people that are on our wall, and I would love to list them off because every one of them we owe a great deal of gratitude to for their generosity. We wouldn’t be here without our funders. But not only that, they sit on the board and so, they help set strategy for where we want to be as a community in the future….
So we’ve just launched BizLink Orange which is really the digital version of what we do here. And with the pandemic it was a forced market acceptance of virtual technology. And so, we always had that technology, you know, we have people here that sign on and watch what we do from all over the world. People would like say, I want to meet with a coach face to face. I want to bring my papers in. When the world shut down they were like virtual coaching that’s fine with me. Because they didn’t know how to get access to PPP or what to do. Their employees were at home. How do I keep my group together? So there was really a forced market acceptance of technology and that’s when we said, “This is how we break down the walls of the National Entrepreneur Center. We don’t have to be real estate bound anymore. We can be virtual.” And so, we went from 16 partners who live here at the Center to 60 regional partners. And so, that was exponential, the growth for us….
The National Side of the National Entrepreneur Center
And so, we began building on our twenty years experience and saying how do we put this online so we don’t have a geographic boundary? So we became really fully embraced in the national side of the National Entrepreneur Center without having to build bricks and mortar. And so, when you do a scatter diagram of who connects with us, it’s all over the world now. And that is good information on business basics that’s feeding people we have never met. And isn’t that cool?
But you know what I teach sometimes in the underserved neighborhoods, so when we launched this digital version of BizLink Orange, we put together a six county calendar of events, videos, blogs that people can get fed. But what if you don’t have a computer? And what if you don’t have access to the Internet? And so, we trained the 31 operators in Orange County with the decision matrix so that people could pick up the phone and dial 311 and say, “I’m looking for help and this is what I need.” And they can go through that grid and here’s who you need to talk to. So we’ve provided that ecosystem of support that you can access in person or online and pick up the telephone.
Number 1 Big City for Starting and Growing a Business
And so, I don’t think there’s another community in the country that has that extent of support or innovation and entrepreneurship. And, I think, WalletHub just named us the number one big city in the country for starting and growing a business. So again, that’s not something I did, that’s something the community did.
Well, you’ve done a lot.
I have been busy.
Thank you for your entrepreneurial spirit, your leadership and the legacy of prosperity that you’ve cultivated for our community and the world. It is brilliant!
We have a great team! We have a super team here that makes it happen….
Listen: Part V of V (6:51)
Global Entrepreneurship Week 2022
I worked on the Board with the Founder of Global Entrepreneurship Week and so I just said to him, “Why don’t you launch Global Entrepreneurship Week from Orlando?” And he said, “Okay.” So we were really honored to have him join us. There’s a book on entrepreneurship called, The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley by Greg Horowitt and Victor W. Hwang.
Center for Entrepreneurship in Washington, DC
And so, I helped found the Center for Entrepreneurship in Washington. And so, it’s really a policy think tank, but it brings in entrepreneurial leaders from all over the country. Really to meet with, we helped set the Entrepreneurship Caucus in the Senate. Marco Rubio’s the co-chair. And the Entrepreneurship Caucus in the House, Stephanie Murphy’s co-chair. But it tries to look at what policies are being made before it becomes law and you have to fix it. So I’m very honored to be part of that… but that opportunity allowed me to bring some of those folks to Orlando to say, “Let’s look at what we’re doing here and make sure that we’re on the right track.” And that was great fun to launch Global Entrepreneurship Week 2022 from Orlando, FL. So we had 150 countries involved in that. So it’s here. And again, this is the place to be if you want to start and grow a business. It’s Orlando, FL.
You know I have another quick question if I may ask?
You know Chris Leggett is down the hall [Central Florida International Trade Office Program Manager], do you see Orlando as maybe becoming this international export center?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Absolutely. Can I tell you the story? I was in Medellin with Mayor Jacobs and we were talking with them about nanotechnology. We were talking with them about the flower business because you know all the cut flowers in the grocery stores come from Medellin. And so, we were there meeting with some of their business leaders. And on the way home, Mayor Jacobs said, “Why aren’t we more involved in the international trade area because we have the wonderful airport that has capacity. We have seaports that are an hour and a half either coast.” And I said, “Well no one’s in charge. There’s no one responsible for doing that. The Federal government has export people, you know Ken and Mindy are here as part of the Commerce Department, but they only focus on export.”
But we also have a huge import business here in Central Florida. We have these ports. And so, Mayor Jacobs said, “What if we fund a position?” And I said, “Well, how would we make that work?” And so, it ended up here as part of our team. So within six months, we garnered a list of about 5,000 importers and exporters. What they import, what they export, where they import from, where they export to and that list had never been created. And we couldn’t find it anywhere. And so, we started contacting those folks to say, “What is it we can do to help?”
International Trade Office
And that led us to posting on our social media channels great information which became then retweeted by the International Trade Administration of the U.S. Government. And so, our content was really good and our focus was here locally because we were funded locally. And so, that’s why it’s an International Trade Office and not an export office. It probably was about a year later I was invited to The White House for a briefing on TPP [Trans-Pacific-Partnership] because of the activities and the recognition of our International Trade Office in Orlando.
National Entrepreneur Center President Jerry Ross at The White House for a briefing on the Trans-Pacific-Partnership, September 30, 2015.
And so, we were getting national attention because we were actively engaged in both import and export which I think is critical to Florida; and even more critical to Central Florida because a lot of people just default into Miami or Jacksonville.
2021 Central Florida International Trade Office Export Report
But we have a great port surface here. I think we are just scratching the surface there because we have limited resources and we only have one person. But last year we produced the first export report that was based on just the data from our MSA here in Central Florida and not in Florida proper. We’re working now on the import report and that’s not been done before. And so, I think most of the wealth is outside the United States.
International Trade Wing
And, I think, companies that are doing it really good here say, “What’s next?” Interstate trade report is great, but we are really uniquely positioned to do international trade as well especially since we get 77 million visitors a year. They come from everywhere. And, I think, they arrive here and say, “I could do this here.” But they also take home products and say, “How do I get that from the U.S.?” And so, we’re building that support mechanism and international trade. So I see, when we talk about a building, I see a whole international trade wing where we have consulate offices. And say, if you want to come and talk international trade there’s a whole floor here… and then we connect you to the shipping ports and we create jobs.
The Next 20 Years
And all of that is good for Central Florida. And, you know, it doesn’t hurt that we have great weather. I think, people who want to do international trade and maybe are in California or New York, it’s tough there. The business environment there is not as friendly as it is here. So, I think, we have a whole list of positives that once people get here they say, “Oh, my gosh. I didn’t realize that it was all this.” And once they do, they’re here. They come. So again, I say, we’re just getting warmed up. We’ve done a really good thing for 20 years in supporting the small business community and I think the next 20 years will be even more exciting.
Jerry Ross, thank you so much for all that you’ve accomplished.
Interview: Jerry Ross
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: August 3, 2022
Place: National Entrepreneur Center
"Oral History Interview with NEC President Jerry Ross, Part I of V". (16:25).
Interview: Jerry Ross
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: August 3, 2022
Place: National Entrepreneur Center
"Oral History Interview with NEC President Jerry Ross, Part II of V".
"Oral History Interview with NEC President Jerry Ross, Part II of V". (14:00)
Interview: Jerry Ross
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: August 3, 2022
Place: National Entrepreneur Center
"Oral History Interview with NEC President Jerry Ross, Part III of V".
"Oral History Interview with NEC President Jerry Ross, Part III of V". (11:16)
Interview: Jerry Ross
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: August 3, 2022
Place: National Entrepreneur Center
"Oral History Interview with NEC President Jerry Ross, Part IV of V".
"Oral History Interview with NEC President Jerry Ross, Part IV of V". (18:05 )
Interview: Jerry Ross
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: August 3, 2022
Place: National Entrepreneur Center
"Oral History Interview with NEC President Jerry Ross, Part V of V"
"Oral History Interview with NEC President Jerry Ross, Part V of V". (6:52)
Interview: Jerry Ross
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: August 3, 2022
Place: National Entrepreneur Center