LaunchPad director attracting entrepreneurs

May 30—Although she has a background in education and teaching, Danna Church has hit the ground running as campus director of Blackstone LaunchPad at University of Texas Permian Basin.

Church has been on the job since November 2021 which was when things were starting to open back up after COVID.

"We still had a lot of online programming versus on-campus. It was right at that time where we were trying to get more students to come back," Church said.

The Blackstone LaunchPad network makes entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial skills accessible and relevant for all college students to help them build thriving companies and careers, the program brochure said.

"Blackstone Launchpad is an entrepreneurial program that came from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. They put together this program where they could put it out to university and college campuses to help start entrepreneurial skills with university students before they have graduated. Currently, it's at 50 different universities across the United States to ... to start promoting entrepreneurialship and entrepreneurial skills," Church said.

The program is open to anyone on campus, any student, any major; anyone that has an idea or thought about becoming an entrepreneur one day.

"We're here to answer those questions, provide resources and help those students out," she said.

Brian Shedd, executive director of the Office of Innovation and Commercialization at UTPB, said Church has hit the ground running.

"Her efforts have already increased student participation in the entrepreneurship programs at UTPB. She has also been very involved with the launch of Student-Made UTPB ( and the renovations at the Dunagan Library to relocate the Roden Center for Entrepreneurship and establish the library as the new home for student entrepreneurship at UTPB," Shedd said.

"Her background in education has made her a natural fit for her role here, and she is doing a wonderful job to provide students with entrepreneurial pathways to explore," he added.

Church has a mailing list that reaches 375 students right now.

"However, I spend a lot of time going into classrooms, doing short class talks, or going to events just to get the word out that we exist. That's the biggest challenge is getting the word out that Blackstone LaunchPad is here and that we have these resources available for students, regardless of major, so that they can take part ... because if they don't know we're here, they can't participate. The participation varies depending on the event, or the workshop, or whatever we're doing at that particular thing if it meets their interest or their questions at that time," Church said.

When she first heard about Blackstone LaunchPad, she said she wished something like this existed when she was a student.

"Not only does it provide skills for people who are interested in being entrepreneurs, but the entrepreneurial mindset is very important as a job skill in general. With that in mind, I think this is highly important for students to have access to these free opportunities and free connections. Like I said, we're on 50 campuses so it opens up the door for them to be able to have resources, mentors, and opportunities all across the country that they wouldn't have if we weren't here, so I feel that it's very important and it's highly beneficial for students," Church said.

Online workshops are available and they also have taken trips that allowed students to network with people, especially in Texas, with other UT campuses.

It's not just open to UT campuses, but they work well with other UT campuses and they collaborate often.

"We've kind of got our own little mini UT network, as well, for entrepreneurship so that we can bounce off ideas and help students out," Church said.

They work with the Small Business Development Center on campus, but it's like the next step after Blackstone LaunchPad.

"We are working more toward helping the students that are still going through the processes. However, if they are already up and running with a business, they're more than welcome to go to SBDC and I have sent people to SBDC before. But I almost feel like we're kind of a channel to get them started and get them on the right path. And then when they get to that specific point, then they can go to the SBDC and continue to get help and to continue to get the resources they need, especially after they've graduated. ... Our program is typically for current students or recent alums, so once they get past that six month a year mark of graduating, then unfortunately, they really need to move on to some other resource like SBDC," Church said.

Some student businesses are still ideas, but others have up and running enterprises.

"We have some students that have mobile carwashes they're running. I've talked to students that are doing party planning. They have jumpers. They rent out the 360 cameras that everybody's doing now at parties ...We have another student who does jewelry. And then another exciting thing that we have going on campus right now that's in collaboration with the Office of Innovation and Commercialization is Student Made," Church said.

Students can sell pottery, toys and jewelry on campus through Student Made, which started in March.

"It really varies. Some of the ideas I've heard are about maybe starting a drone business where they can take pictures for real estate companies. It really is wide and various on the different businesses and ideas that students have," Church said.

She added that a lot of times students have great ideas for businesses, but they don't know the steps like having a business plan and working out the kinks.

"One of our goals is to help them learn all of those things to stop potential mistakes that they might make down the road, that might hinder their success. If we can help them get started on the right path now, it helps them become successful faster," Church said.

Church's background is in education and teaching, but Blackstone LaunchPad is still a form of teaching.

"I'm helping students with the skills and giving them the resources that they need to be successful, which is a form of teaching anyway," she added.

"We want our students to be successful. We want them to go out into the world and make a difference. And like I said, be successful and this is just another avenue to help students reach their goals and do that," Church said.

Church has lived in Odessa most of her life. She earned a bachelor's degree from UTPB in child and family studies and a master's in library science from Sam Houston State University. Currently, she's working on her MBA at UTPB.

"I want to have the skills and know more so that I can help students go further. As an educator, I feel like I'm a lifelong learner and the opportunity is here for me to get an MBA, so I'm going to take that opportunity," she added.

Church said she's enjoying her job because each day is different and each semester is different.

"We do workshops and competitions. We take students to events out of town, sometimes out of state. It has provided me with more skills than I had before and I love working with the students and seeing the light bulbs go off, or seeing the excitement (on) their face when they're telling me about this business goal or dream that they have and being able to help them with the resources and skills to start making that happen for them," she added.

Her office is currently in the College of Business, but it is moving to the library where more people will be exposed to it. Her new office will be next to the new Roden Center in the library near the new makerspace area.

"It's going to open up the doors for people to be like oh, I want to learn more about that. I want to see what's going on in there. What are they doing? They can also take those ideas, if it's an actual product, and go make a prototype in the makerspace. Now it's all tied in and connected in and this is the perfect space for us to be to reach more students," Church said.

She added that it's been wonderful to be back at UTPB and part of the progress of the university.

"There are some really good people on this campus that have been a really good resource to go to as I've gone through this journey," Church said.